- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2006

TEL AVIV — Israel agreed last night to halt its air attacks in Lebanon for at least 48 hours to let residents flee from southern Lebanese villages and to enable an investigation of a deadly Israeli air strike in Qana, U.S. officials said.

The decision, announced by State Department spokesman Adam Ereli, came amid an international uproar after Israel’s military killed dozens of civilians — most of them children — in an air strike on a Lebanese village.

The strike torpedoed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s second effort at shuttle diplomacy in a week. She canceled talks in Beirut and scheduled a return home today, saying she wants a cease-fire in Middle East fighting “as soon as possible.”

Mr. Ereli said that Miss Rice had been pressing Israel for a brief stoppage in the bombing even before the Qana bombing.

“The United States welcomes this decision and hopes that it will help relieve the suffering of the children and families of southern Lebanon,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying.

The two-day halt to the bombings came before the U.N. Security Council, meeting in an emergency session, unanimously approved a statement expressing “extreme shock and distress” about the Qana attack and urging “a lasting settlement of the crisis.”

Israel’s agreement to halt air strikes for two days, effective as of last night, will include provisions for residents of southern Lebanon to safely leave their towns. Many have been killed in vehicles while fleeing northward despite Israeli fliers warning them to leave.

The bombing pause will also permit food and medicine to be trucked to residents of the south. The pause does not apply to ground operations.

Miss Rice said she would continue to work from Washington for a United Nations’ resolution combining a cease-fire with measures to insert an international force between Israel and Hezbollah, which sparked Israel’s assault by kidnapping two soldiers on July 12.

President Bush, at a White House T-ball game for disabled children, said, “Today’s actions in the Middle East remind us that friends and allies must work together for a sustainable peace particularly for the sake of children.”

The strike on a three-story building in Qana may mark a turning point in the conflict by hardening the resolve of other countries to force a diplomatic resolution.

“We must condemn this action in the strongest possible terms,” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told an emergency session of the Security Council. “I am deeply dismayed that my earlier calls for an immediate cessation of hostilities were not heeded.”

The statement approved by the 15-member Security Council expressed “concern at the threat of escalation of violence with further grave consequences for the humanitarian situation, calls for an end to violence, and underscores the urgency of securing a lasting, permanent and sustainable cease-fire.”

Israeli officials said they regretted the civilian deaths but rejected criticism of the army and vowed to continue hitting Hezbollah.

“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,” said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the Cabinet’s weekly session.

“When we hit civilians — it is an exceptional occurrence that is not in our character. But those who are shooting at us shoot in order to kill civilians as the sole and exclusive goal of all their activity.”

Miss Rice met yesterday in Israel with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and with Mr. Olmert for the second time in two days. The Israelis reportedly told her that they wanted an additional 10 days to two weeks of military action before a cease-fire.

The secretary had been scheduled to continue yesterday to Beirut, and both she and Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora claimed to have been the one who decided to call off the meeting.

“There is no place at this sad moment for any discussions other than an immediate and unconditional cease-fire as well as international investigation of the Israeli massacres in Lebanon now,” Mr. Siniora was quoted as saying.

The United States has come under increasing pressure from its European allies to press Israel for a truce, Reuters news agency reported.

The French ambassador to the United Nations, Jean-Marc de la Sabliere, expressing dismay at the attack on Qana, said continued attacks on Lebanon “cannot be justified” and renewed his government’s plea for an immediate end to the offensive.

He urged the Security Council to work on a plan to resolve the overall crisis. France on Saturday distributed a draft resolution that would back a cessation of hostilities with the insertion of an international force along the border.

British U.N. Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry said the Israeli air strike “reinforces the need for the violence to end and to end now.”

Israeli military officials suggested that the ruined building in Qana may have collapsed hours after the Israeli bombardment. Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Dan Gillerman, said defiantly, “One who goes to sleep with rockets shouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t wake up in the morning.”

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