By Edward Cody and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 31, 2006; A01
BEIRUT, July 31 -- Israeli warplanes hunting Hezbollah rocket launchers in southern Lebanon on Sunday killed at least 57 civilians, most of them children, huddled inside a three-story building in a small village. In response, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared set to abandon diplomacy in the region and said she would return to Washington on Monday. But after an intense day of negotiations in Jerusalem, Israel agreed to suspend air attacks on southern Lebanon for 48 hours.
[Rice told reporters early Monday morning that she would soon seek a U.N. resolution that would bring a cease-fire. "This morning as I head back to Washington, I take with me an emerging consensus on what is necessary for both an urgent cease-fire and a lasting settlement," Rice said. "I am convinced we can achieve both this week."]
The attack on the small Lebanese village of Qana was the bloodiest single incident in 19 days of warfare between Israel and Hezbollah. Among the dead were 37 children and a large number of women, according to the Lebanese health minister. Hezbollah, the radical Shiite Muslim movement, vowed revenge, and more than 150 rockets slammed into northern Israel, wounding at least five people. It was the highest number of rockets fired at Israel since the conflict began.
The announcement of a pause in airstrikes was made after midnight by State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli to reporters traveling with Rice. It fell short of the full cease-fire many world leaders had sought. The suspension will not apply to other parts of Lebanon, nor diminish ground operations underway along the Israeli-Lebanese border. [Israel launched airstrikes in eastern Lebanon overnight, but the raids occurred before the 2 a.m. start of a 48-hour suspension of aerial bombardments in the south, an Israeli military spokeswoman said Monday. Earlier, Lebanese security sources said that at least two Israel airstrikes hit roads near the Lebanese border with Syria after the suspension went into effect, the Reuters news agency reported.]
The two-day pause, which will include a 24-hour window for relief organizations to deliver supplies and allow residents to leave southern Lebanon, could be jeopardized if Hezbollah continues firing rockets or Israel detects an imminent launch, a U.S. official said.
"This is an issue that we have been working for some time and calling for for some time," Ereli said. "We expect that Israel will implement these decisions so as to significantly speed and improve the flow of humanitarian aid."
After news of the attack broke Sunday morning, angry Lebanese leaders said they told Rice -- who had arrived in Jerusalem a day earlier to negotiate a settlement -- not to visit Beirut as planned. Rice said she had canceled the trip in light of the day's events.
Earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet he was "deeply sorry" for the civilian deaths. But Olmert said, "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." According to a senior Israeli official in attendance, Olmert added, "We won't stop this campaign despite this morning's tragic events. We will continue despite it not being popular."
Olmert had told Rice he expected Israel's assault on Hezbollah to continue for 10 days to two weeks. Aides said Rice will now turn to a U.N. Security Council resolution. The United States is seeking a resolution endorsing a package Rice has been preparing during her travels to Israel, Lebanon and Rome. A key provision would seek Lebanese government agreement to disarm Hezbollah.
The U.S. package also calls for creating an international force of at least 10,000 troops to deploy in Lebanon to back up the government and beef up the army. It would help secure the south and the country's borders, airport and port to ensure Hezbollah is unable to rearm. Rice has repeatedly said her goal is a "sustainable" cease-fire to ensure tensions are not triggered again.
Olmert told Rice that at least 10,000 combat-ready foreign troops should be stationed along the border and in southern Beirut, according to the senior Israeli official.
Also Sunday, eight Israeli soldiers were wounded as troops and tanks made a new incursion into southern Lebanon. Four were on foot near the village of Taiba and four were in a tank that was hit by a missile north of the Israeli town of Metula, an army spokesman said. Three Hezbollah fighters were killed, the Reuters news agency reported.
"We scream out to the world community to stand united in the face of Israel's war criminals," Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora said in an English-language declaration that appeared to be aimed at Rice. "There is no place on this sad morning for any discussion other than an immediate and unconditional cease-fire and an international investigation into the Israeli massacres."
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, a close U.S. ally, swiftly condemned the bombing as "irresponsible." King Abdullah of Jordan, another U.S. ally, called it "an ugly crime." And President Jacques Chirac of France, who has been pushing hard for an immediate cease-fire, described it as an "unjustifiable action" that underlined the need for the shooting to stop.
About 10,000 Lebanese, most of them young men sympathetic to Hezbollah, gathered in downtown Beirut to demonstrate against the killings. "This is against that dog Rice," shouted Ali Qassim, 30, who fled his home in south Lebanon.
"All this democracy that the American ambassador is always talking to us about, this is it?" another refugee yelled. "If he has any honor, let him get out of Lebanon. Get out."
More than 2,000 Palestinian demonstrators gathered in Gaza City on Sunday night to condemn the Israeli attacks in a rally organized by Hamas, the Islamic movement that controls the Palestinian government, and the militant group Islamic Jihad. In Cairo, there was a large demonstration that included more than 100 members of parliament, al-Arabiya satellite television reported.
In Beirut, Hussein Hajj Hassan, a Hezbollah member of parliament, called on Siniora to expel the U.S. ambassador, Jeffrey D. Feltman, and said Rice should never be allowed back to Lebanon.
Lebanese security officials said Hezbollah leaders had notified Siniora soon after the extent of bloodshed became known that Rice should not be allowed to return to Beirut. Siniora, who has been Rice's main interlocutor in negotiations in the past week, told Rice not to show up when she called him later. "I talked with Secretary Rice this morning, and I told her we cannot go on negotiating while Israel is bombing and killing innocent women and children," Siniora told a gathering of ambassadors accredited to Lebanon.
Feltman, the U.S. ambassador, did not attend the gathering, citing security concerns, a Siniora aide said.
Rice expressed sorrow at the civilian deaths and said she had pressed on Israeli leaders the need to take more care to avoid such tragedies. "In the wake of the tragedy that the people and government of Lebanon are dealing with today, I have decided to postpone my discussions in Beirut," she told reporters. "In any case, my work is here today." Several hours later, her aides announced she was leaving in the morning.
Qana, the village where the killings occurred, lies about 15 miles southeast of Tyre, just north of the border with Israel. The village was the scene of another large-scale killing in 1996, when Israeli missiles hit a U.N. post where civilians had gathered for safety, killing 106.
Villagers said Sunday's attack lasted from midnight until a little past dawn. Bombs landed on the building where 63 people were sheltered at about 1 a.m.
The village bore the signs of the assault: Rubble was strewn through the street, and several buildings had collapsed. The red-tile roof of a large villa was peeled off, as in the aftermath of a tornado. Wires hung from utility poles, one of them bent in half. A remnant of a weapon was tossed in front of the house. It read, "For use on MK-84, Guided Bomb BSU-37/B (ASSY) 96214-700922-6."
The Israeli military has not yet said what munitions were used in the attack, but according to the Web site globalsecurity.org, a clearinghouse of military information, an MK-84 is a 2,000-pound bomb.
Red Cross drivers said they tried to approach the village at 6:30 a.m. but turned away three times because Israeli shells were falling in the streets ahead of them. Later, rescue workers in orange jumpsuits dug through the rubble, pulling out the bodies of men, women and children. Most of the victims were in the basement of one building, where they had gone for safety when a pair of airstrikes hit the village beginning at 1 a.m., witnesses said.
Many Arab television stations broadcast the rescue operations live, showing footage of the dead, young girls covered in dust, in pajamas, some with limbs severed, being lifted from the rubble.
Health Minister Mohammad Khalifeh said 57 people were killed. Thirty-seven children were among the victims. Khalifeh said families had told Red Cross workers that at least 10 people were still missing.
Five other civilians were killed by shelling on the village of Yaroun, about 20 miles farther southeast, al-Jazeera reported. Yaroun lies in a pocket of territory that also includes Bint Jbeil, Maroun al-Ras and Aitaroun, towns that have been the scene of frequent ground encounters between invading Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters manning rocket launchers and munitions caches.
More than 510 Lebanese have been killed since the fighting began, the vast majority of them civilians. Israeli officials expressed regret over the civilian deaths in Qana but blamed them on Hezbollah fighters, who they said were firing rockets from the area. Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman, said civilians had been warned by broadcasts, telephone calls and leaflets to leave the Qana area because rockets were being fired from there.
Nineteen Israeli civilians have been killed by the rockets since hostilities broke out after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers on July 12. In addition, 33 Israeli soldiers have been killed, most of them in clashes just inside Lebanon.
"That building was not targeted," said Capt. Noa Meir, an Israeli army spokeswoman, referring to the structure in Qana. "There were missiles being launched 100 to 300 meters from the building. We don't target civilians, and had we known there were civilians there, we would not have fired on that site."
Later Sunday, Israeli Air Force Brig. Gen. Amir Eshel said in a briefing for reporters that the military was probing an apparent several-hour gap between the time of an airstrike near the site of the Qana building and the time the building collapsed. He said that the area was targeted between midnight and 1 a.m. and that the building collapsed six or seven hours later.
"It could be that inside the building, things that could eventually cause an explosion were being housed, things that we could not blow up in the attack, and maybe remained there," Eshel said, in an apparent suggestion that stored Hezbollah explosives had caused the destruction.
"At this time I don't have a clue as to what the explanation could be for this gap."
An Israeli military spokesman later said the military's belief that the building had not collapsed until nearly 8 a.m. stemmed from initial news reports of the attack. "I want to be clear, we're not denying responsibility in any way," the spokesman said. "I was with the generals earlier when they were looking at the reconnaissance photography to try to analyze it. They are still trying to figure this out."
Finer reported from Jerusalem. Staff writer Robin Wright in Jerusalem, correspondents Anthony Shadid in Qana and Nora Boustany in Beirut, and special correspondent Faiza Saleh Ambah in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.