JERUSALEM—Israel agreed late Sunday to suspend its aerial bombardment of southern Lebanon for 48 hours after an attack on a house in the village of Qana killed 54 civilians, most of them sleeping children.
U.S. State Department officials announced the suspension after a tense day in which U.S. officials for the first time appeared visibly unhappy over the turn of events in Lebanon.
Acting State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Israel also had agreed to a separate 24-hour period during which residents of southern Lebanon would be given safe passage to leave the area. But it was unclear when that 24-hour period would begin and whether it would overlap with the 48-hour suspension of aerial attacks.
"We expect the Israelis will implement these decisions so as to significantly speed and improve the flow of humanitarian aid," Ereli said. "The United States welcomes this decision and hopes that it will help to relieve the suffering of the children and families of south Lebanon."
The announcement was a modest victory for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who pressed Israel's leaders this weekend to take steps to ease the growing humanitarian crisis in southern Lebanon, where hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes.
But the suspension would not affect Israel's ground military operations or, presumably, its use of artillery and stopped short of calls from other world leaders for a cease-fire. It was unclear whether Israel would be willing to extend the suspension.
Earlier, Israeli officials had told Rice they would need 10-14 more days to complete their military campaign against the Islamic militant group Hezbollah.
The Israeli suspension came as much of the world reacted angrily to the bombing at Qana, which killed at least 54 people, including more than 34 children. Rice cancelled a planned visit to Lebanon and made plans to return to Washington on Monday.
Lebanon seethed over the Israeli air raid, the second time in 10 years that Qana had been the scene of a mass killing. In 1996, Israeli artillery killed 100 civilians who had sought shelter at a U.N. compound during another conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.
At the United Nations, the Security Council convened an emergency meeting to consider demanding an immediate cease-fire. World leaders denounced the attack.
President Bush decried the deaths, but said it was too early to push for a cease-fire.
Israeli officials lamented the deaths of civilians but said that Hezbollah had fired hundreds of rockets into Israel from the surrounding area.
"The responsibility for any civilian casualties rests with the Hezbollah, who have turned the suburbs of Lebanon into a war front by firing missiles from within civilian areas," the Israeli military said in a statement.
In its own statement, Hezbollah vowed to respond to the attack. The militant group fired 157 rockets into Israel on Sunday.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who in the past has criticized Hezbollah's actions, said he told Rice on the phone that he would no longer negotiate without a cease-fire in place.
"There is no place on this sad day for any discussion other than our call for an immediate and unconditional cease-fire," Saniora said.
As satellite television images of the devastation in Qana were beamed around the world, the much criticized U.S. position on the conflict—that a durable political solution for Lebanon must be in place before any cease-fire—came under even heavier fire.
In downtown Beirut, hundreds of angry people massed outside the U.N. building, hurling rocks and ramming iron bars through glass doors and windows. Several people stormed the building while U.N. staff hid in the basement, until Lebanese police and political leaders reached the scene and calmed the crowd.
Protestors chanted "Death to Israel" and "Death to America" while waving Lebanese and Hezbollah flags and portraits of Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
"There is no U.N. There is only the Israeli-American association," said Amani Abouhard, 16. "How can the U.N. support giving Israel more time to kill us?"
The official death toll in Lebanon stands at 561 people, mostly civilians, although estimates go as high as 750. Fifty-two Israelis have died in the violence since July 12, including 19 civilians.
A defiant Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet Sunday that, while he was sorry about what happened in Qana, he was willing to expand Israel's military operations if necessary, according to an aide who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"I think that it must be clear that Israel is not rushing into a cease-fire before we reach a situation in which we can say that we have achieved the main goals that we set for ourselves," the aide quoted Olmert as saying.
On Sunday, the leaders of two Arab nations who originally criticized Hezbollah for the kidnappings issued statements condemning Israel.
"This criminal aggression is an ugly crime that has been committed by the Israeli forces in the city of Qana that is a gross violation of all international statutes," said Jordan's King Abdullah.
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak said his country "condemns the irresponsible Israeli strikes ... that left innocent victims dead, most of them children and women."
Before returning to Israel Friday, Rice appeared hopeful for a diplomatic settlement. She praised Hezbollah's support of a seven-point peace plan drafted by Lebanon, which includes an exchange of prisoners and negotiations with Israel over the disputed Shebaa Farms region.
But in the aftermath of Qana, Rice's team expressed frustration.
"Our schedule got thrown off. I'll be candid about that," said a senior State Department official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. But, he said, "a lot of this (Rice's work) still remains relevant."
Rice learned of the carnage in Qana in the middle of a meeting at a Jerusalem hotel with Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch interrupted the meeting to tell her, and when she appeared before reporters later she seemed shaken and somber.
While Rice and her aides strived to keep them under wraps, there were rare frictions with Israel over the strike's impact on Rice's diplomatic efforts and Israel's insistence that it needs more time to attack Hezbollah positions.
Rice said she "reiterated our strong concern about the impact of Israeli military operations on innocent civilians during crisis." She also pressed Israel to do more to unblock deliveries of humanitarian aid to Lebanon.
There were divergent accounts over who cancelled Rice's visit to Beirut. Rice said she called Saniora and told him she would not be coming, but Saniora said he was no longer willing to engage in negotiations without a cease-fire.
However, U.S. officials said that Saniora continued to speak Sunday with Jeffrey Feltman, the American ambassador to Lebanon.
And a member of Saniora's cabinet said that despite the raw emotions that prevailed Sunday, there was still hope for a negotiated settlement.
"There is a strong feeling of extreme anger," said Sami Haddad, the minister of trade and economy. "But negotiations are ongoing. They may be going intensely or less intensely. But we're constantly talking."
(Strobel reported from Jerusalem, Bengali from Beirut. Contributing to this report were Dion Nissenbaum in Jerusalem and McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Miret el-Naggar in Cairo.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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