- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2006

1:04 p.m.

QANA, Lebanon — Israeli warplanes carried out strikes in southern Lebanon today, hours after agreeing to halt air raids temporarily while investigating a bombing that killed at least 56 Lebanese civilians, mostly women and children seeking shelter.

Before fighting resumed, trucks and cars loaded with people streamed north as thousands of civilians trapped in southern Lebanon’s war zone for three weeks took advantage of the brief lull to escape.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had agreed to a 48-hour cease-fire beginning at 2 a.m. today while the military concluded its inquiry into the attack on the southern Lebanese village of Qana, Israel’s deadliest strike in nearly three weeks of fighting.

However, Israel left open the option of striking targets to stop imminent attacks or if the military completed its inquiry. After Hezbollah guerrillas hit an Israeli tank near the village of Taibeh with an anti-tank missile, Israel said, the army carried out the air strikes to protect ground troops.

AP Television News footage showed two Israeli tanks side by side in southern Lebanon, with flames suddenly covering one of them. Soldiers emerged from one tank and did not appear to be badly hurt.

In an air strike around the port city of Tyre, Israel accidentally killed a Lebanese soldier when it hit a car it believed was carrying a senior Hezbollah official, the Israeli army said.

The Israeli army sought to justify the action, saying the leader believed to have been in the car was a threat to Israel. Instead, the car carried a Lebanese army officer and soldiers. “They were, of course, not the targets, and we regret the incident,” the army said.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israel plans to “expand and strengthen” its attack on Hezbollah, diminishing hopes that the 48-hour air strike halt could become a longer cease-fire.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned that the entire Middle East peace could collapse because of Israel’s fighting in Lebanon. “There is an urgent need for an unconditional cease-fire, which would pave the way for international efforts to end the crisis and deal with its consequences,” he said in a nationwide TV address.

In Washington, President Bush stuck to his position that any cease-fire be accompanied by a wider agreement addressing the root causes of the fighting, such as Hezbollah’s control of southern Lebanon, and Iran and Syria’s influence in Lebanon.

Fighting was heavy in the northeastern corner of southern Lebanon around Taibeh and other border villages, where Israeli ground forces have been fighting Hezbollah guerrillas for nearly two weeks. Constant Israeli artillery blasts — not covered under the air halt — shook the hills.

Hezbollah guerrillas fired mortars at Misgav Am, near the Israeli town of Kiryat Shemona, in what initially was thought to be a rocket attack, the Israeli army said. No casualties or damage was reported.

Israel called the 48-hour halt under U.S. pressure amid worldwide outrage over the Qana strike yesterday morning; of those killed, at least 34 were children and 12 women. Before, the largest death toll from a single Israeli strike was about a dozen.

It was the deadliest single attack in the Israeli onslaught against Lebanon, aimed at reining in Hezbollah, which sparked the conflict by capturing two Israeli soldiers and killing three in a cross-border raid July 12.

Some 519 persons have been confirmed killed by Lebanon’s Health Ministry since the fighting began. On the Israeli side, 33 soldiers have died, and Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel have killed 18 civilians, Israeli authorities said.

The stunning bloodshed in Qana increased international pressure on Washington to back an immediate end to the fighting and pushed American peace efforts to a crucial juncture as fury flared in Lebanon. The Beirut government said it would no longer negotiate over a U.S. peace package without an unconditional cease-fire.

The attack prompted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to cut short her Mideast mission to return home today. In a nationally televised speech before leaving Israel, Miss Rice said she would seek international consensus for a cease-fire and a “lasting settlement” in the conflict through a U.N. Security Council resolution this week.

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