Israel halts airstrikes


JERUSALEM -- Israel agreed to halt bombing for 48 hours and allow besieged civilians safe passage out of southern Lebanon, U.S. officials said yesterday - a concession granted under intense pressure after one of its airstrikes hit a house full of women and children, killing at least 56 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, Lebanon, and galvanized the strongest demands yet for an immediate end to the fighting.

Until late yesterday, Israel and the United States 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 that his country needed another 10 to 14 days to prosecute its offensive, Israeli officials said yesterday.

But the bombing in the Lebanese town of Qana ignited an outcry that neither Washington nor the Israeli government 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 Fouad Siniora said in a news conference in Beirut shortly before his government announced that Rice would not be coming to Beirut.

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

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 ordered out of Qana.

"One must understand the Hezbollah is using their own civilian population as human shields," said Gideon Meir, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official. "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 ordered all civilians last week to leave south Lebanon, a swath of territory reaching from the Israeli border to the Litani River, some 20 miles north.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israel would conduct a full investigation of the incident.

But the televised images of stiffened, dust-covered bodies of little girls and boys being pulled from the wreckage spread rage throughout 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 that 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 yesterday evening, the Israelis relented. The bargaining was so hard-fought that the deal came about only at midnight and was announced by the Americans alone. Several Israeli officials contacted for comment were unaware of it.

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 that the fighting in the area may not cease completely.

The decision does not affect ground operations or artillery.

In the 48 hours, U.S. officials said, the U.N. will arrange a 24-hour period of supervised evacuations from south Lebanon, a swath of hilly land that has become a smoldering, crumbled wasteland in these last 2 1/2 weeks of relentless bombardment.

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

More than 500 Lebanese and 52 Israelis have been killed in the fighting.

A few 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 condemn the Israeli strike.

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