JERUSALEM—Tens of thousands of Lebanese civilians trapped by war stumbled out of their hiding places to seek medical care, food and escape on Monday as a suspension of Israel's aerial bombardment of southern Lebanon opened a brief window of calm after 20 days of conflict.
Israeli officials warned, however, that the fighting was far from over. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that the brief pause in Israel's air assault didn't signal a coming cease-fire, and he remained unapologetic about civilians hurt in the three weeks of fighting. The Israeli Cabinet approved expanding ground attacks.
In southern Lebanon, reporters reaching the outskirts of Bint Jbail could hear the sounds of fighting, and Hezbollah fighters and Katyusha rocket launchers were visible in many villages.
"The fighting continues," Olmert said. "There is no cease-fire, and there will be no cease-fire."
He said that while Israelis were saddened by the "accidental injuries to innocents in Lebanon, we are not apologizing."
More than 750 Lebanese, most believed to be civilians, have died in Israeli attacks, including at least 57 on Sunday when an Israeli airstrike leveled an apartment building in the village of Qana. That strike prompted Israel to stop its bombing campaign for 48 hours so it could investigate the bombing. The suspension will end at 2 a.m. Wednesday local time (7 p.m. Tuesday EDT).
The break allowed humanitarian workers to reach places they hadn't been able to before, where they reportedly found 49 bodies in the rubble.
Hezbollah also largely observed the suspension. Only three rockets and three mortar rounds struck northern Israel on Monday. There were no reports of injuries.
But it wasn't complete calm. Israel bombed a car full of Lebanese Army soldiers, killing one, and Israeli ground forces continued to attack three southern Lebanese towns.
Israeli officials approved expanding the ground war in order to inflict as much damage on Hezbollah as possible before fighting does end. "We cannot agree to an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon because then we will find ourselves in a few months in a similar situation," said Defense Minister Amir Peretz. "The army will expand and deepen its actions against Hezbollah."
Still, pressure mounted internationally for a formal end to the fighting.
France drafted a resolution to be presented in the U.N. Security Council that called for an immediate cease-fire and the creation of an international peacekeeping force led by French troops. French officials in Beirut also met with Iranian diplomats. Iran is a key sponsor of Hezbollah.
In Egypt, scores of parliament members demonstrated and called for Arab countries to expel Israeli ambassadors, recall their ambassadors from the U.S and Israel, and boycott American and Israeli products.
President Bush, speaking in Miami, called for Iran and Syria to end their sponsorship of Hezbollah.
"Iran must end its financial support and supply of weapons to terrorist groups like Hezbollah," he said. "Syria must end its support for terror and respect the sovereignty of Lebanon."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returned to the United States and prepared to head later this week to New York to begin negotiations there for a Security Council resolution that would impose a cease-fire while setting up a U.N. peacekeeping force and disarming Hezbollah.
"I take with me an emerging consensus on what is necessary for both an urgent cease-fire and a lasting settlement. I'm convinced that we can achieve both this week," she said before leaving Israel.
But Rice's U.N. plan faces several significant challenges. For one, it seems doubtful that Hezbollah would agree to disarm voluntarily. Rice told reporters on her flight back to Washington that that isn't a precondition for a cease-fire.
For another, the United States wants an agreement on Lebanon's future that would disarm militias and limit foreign interference.
"There has to be a very clear indication of what Lebanon is going to look like under conditions of a cease-fire. Otherwise, what is a cease-fire about?" Rice said.
The emerging deal also leaves unresolved the fate of the disputed Chebaa Farms area, claimed by both Syria and Lebanon and occupied by Israel. Syria and Lebanon need to resolve the issue and agree on their mutual border, Rice said.
Still, the pause in fighting allowed an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 Lebanese to move from southern Lebanon to northern areas, including Beirut, said Nabil El-Jisr, coordinator of the Lebanese government's humanitarian operation.
Khaled Mansour, spokesman for the United Nations in Beirut, said two convoys of food and medical supplies set off Monday from Beirut for the town of Tyre and for the village of Qana, site of the deadliest Israeli attack of the war.
Traffic was heavy and transit was slowed even further by damaged roads and bridges and continuing ground fighting. In some places, cars moved only 250 yards in an hour.
Israeli military sources said they continued to fight in and around three towns in Lebanon: Taibe, Maroun A'Ras and Attiye A-shaab. They refused to provide details on the number of soldiers involved in the fighting, but from across the border, the intensity of the fighting sounded similar to that of recent days.
As that fighting raged, hundreds of Lebanese villagers, many of whom had been virtual prisoners of Israel's strikes against Hezbollah's southern strongholds, seized the chance to flee.
Many were barefoot as they climbed through the rubble of their border villages and walked three hours north along a bomb-scarred path to the hospital in Tibnine.
Lebanese villagers from Bint Jbail and Ainata, two of the most devastated areas, arrived reeking of urine and filth. Doctors at the overflowing, dismal hospital in Tibnine treated them for heat exhaustion, shrapnel wounds and other injuries. One elderly man who had hobbled along the trail with the help of his relatives died of a heart attack hours after his arrival, doctors said.
The villagers told of existing for two weeks with no electricity, putrid drinking water and the terrifying uncertainty of the war that surrounded them. The corpses of neighbors killed in Israeli airstrikes sent a stomach-churning smell through the air, they said. The whoosh of Hezbollah rockets headed for Israel and the crash of retaliatory bombs had left them exhausted and shell-shocked.
"Please, my daughter left for the mosque three days ago, and I haven't seen her since. Is she here?" asked Manar Karam, who had fled Ainata that morning. "Forty-eight hours. Forty-eight hours. Will that be enough time to find her?"
Everywhere, villagers made the trip with their eyes to the sky and their ears tuned for the hum of Israeli warplanes.
But refugees weren't the only people on the roads. Clusters of shadowy young men with beards and cold stares were the only signs of life in villages with singsong names: Bazouriya, Sultaniya, Shabiya and Beit Yahoune.
In one crater-ridden hamlet, a Hezbollah guerrilla carrying a gun in one hand and a walkie-talkie in another ducked into an abandoned garage. Rocket launchers could be seen from a road along a deep valley.
(Schofield reported from Jerusalem, Allam from Tibnine, Lebanon. Contributing to this report were Shashank Bengali in Beirut, Warren P. Strobel in Shannon, Ireland, and McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Miret el Naggar in Cairo.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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