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Monday, July 31, 2006 - Page updated at 07:26 AM

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Israelis agree to 48-hour airstrike reprieve

Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM — Israel agreed to halt aerial bombing for 48 hours and allow besieged civilians safe passage out of southern Lebanon, U.S. officials said Sunday — a concession granted under intense pressure after one of its airstrikes hit a house full of women and children, killing at least 57 people.

The strike, the deadliest in Israel's 19-day offensive, derailed U.S. diplomatic efforts in the region, at least for now, forcing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to cancel a trip to Beirut, and galvanized the strongest demands yet for an immediate end to the fighting.

Rice, in Jerusalem, decided to return to Washington today.

Until late Sunday, both Israel and the U.S. had turned aside calls for a truce, saying Hezbollah militants, who have been firing hundreds of rockets at northern Israel, would merely use it to regroup.

As recently as Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had told Rice his country needed 10 to 14 more days to prosecute its offensive, Israeli officials said Sunday.

But the bombing in the Lebanese town of Qana ignited an outcry that neither the U.S. nor Israel could ignore.

"There is no place on this sad morning for any discussion except for an immediate cease-fire and an international investigation into Israeli massacres," Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said in Beirut shortly before his government announced that Rice would not be coming there.

Saniora, who has been at odds with Hezbollah in the past, also said he "thanked" the Islamic militant group for its "sacrifices."

The Beirut government said it would no longer negotiate over a U.S. peace package without an unconditional cease-fire.

Rice, called the Qana bombing "awful" and said she wanted "a cease-fire as soon as possible." It appeared to be her first real call for a quick end to the bloodshed.

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The attack in Qana brought tons of concrete crashing onto Lebanese families who had taken refuge in the basement of a three-story house. More than half were children, sleeping when what appears to have been a precision-guided bomb fell on them.

Israel expressed "deep sorrow" for what it called a tragic mistake and said Hezbollah was using the town to fire rockets into northern Israel.

Officials said they were unaware of the large number of civilians in the building and noted that civilians had been warned to leave Qana.

"One must understand the Hezbollah is using their own civilian population as human shields," said Israeli Foreign Ministry official Gideon Meir. "The Israeli defense forces dropped leaflets and warned the civilian population to leave the place because the Hezbollah turned it into a war zone."

Israel last week warned all civilians to leave south Lebanon, territory reaching from the Israeli border to the Litani river, some 20 miles north.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israel would fully investigate the incident.

The televised images of bodies of children pulled from the wreckage spread rage through the Arab world and beyond. Angry, fist-pumping demonstrators marched on the U.N. headquarters in Beirut and, later, the U.S. Embassy.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called an emergency session of the Security Council and reiterated pleas for an immediate cease-fire. Close allies and even the pope demanded Washington relax its insistence that no cease-fire should begin until a broader peace deal was in place.

Some allies who have been preparing to offer troops for an international stabilization force stepped up their pressure on the United States to halt the bombing, if only temporarily.

Rice and her aides met throughout the day with Israeli officials. Initially, the Israeli government held firm, saying it would continue to press ahead with its offensive against Hezbollah.

But after sessions that dragged late into Sunday evening, the Israelis relented. The deal was so hard-fought that it came about only at midnight and was announced by the Americans alone.

The 48-hour suspension applies only to aerial operations, officials said. At the same time, Israel "reserved the right to take action against targets preparing attacks against it," an official said, suggesting the fighting in the area may not cease completely.

The decision does not affect ground operations or artillery.

In the 48 hours, the U.S. said, the U.N. will arrange a 24-hour period of evacuations from south Lebanon.

The United States "welcomes this decision and hopes that it will help relieve the suffering of the children and families of the Lebanese," said State Department spokesman Adam Ereli, who announced the bombing halt. He noted that the 24 hour safe-passage period may be extended.

The fighting, in which more than 510 Lebanese and 52 Israelis have been killed, was triggered when the Shiite militia group abducted two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid July 12, then killed eight others who pursued them.

Hours after the bombing halt was announced, the U.N. Security Council called for an end to violence in Lebanon. In a unanimous statement, the council expressed "extreme shock and distress" over the bombing in Qana but did not of condemn the Israeli strike.

The warfare continued Sunday. Hezbollah fired at least 140 rockets into northern Israel, wounding several people. And Israel opened a second ground offensive hours before the temporary bombing halt was agreed to, sending troops into an area across the border from the northern Galilee town of Metulla.

As news of the new Qana deaths coursed through the streets of Beirut on Sunday, thousands of demonstrators opposed to U.S. support for Israel massed in the capital city's rebuilt downtown demanding the expulsion of Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman.

Briefly breaking into a U.N. office, the demonstrators chanted: "America get out. Beirut is a free country."

Jordan's King Abdullah, perhaps Washington's and Israel's best friend in the Arab world, labeled the bombing "an ugly crime."

Hamas, the Islamist group that dominates the Palestinian government, expressed solidarity with Hezbollah and the Lebanese people, and said Israel would suffer retaliation.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has backed U.S. policy in the region, said that "what has happened in Qana shows this is a situation that simply cannot continue."

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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