Israel suspends air strikes on south Lebanon

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The Independent Online

Israel suspended aerial attacks on southern Lebanon for 48 hours last night to allow civilians to leave the area and humanitarian supplies to move in. But Asaf Shariv, a spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister, stressed that it was not a ceasefire.

"If we see a missile, we will shoot it," he said. "If we see a launcher, we will shoot it. If we see the Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, for sure we will shoot him. Ground operations are continuing." The agreement was announced in Jerusalem yesterday by Adam Ereli, an American State Department spokesman, following emergency talks between Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister.

It came after an air strike that killed more than 50 Lebanese civilians in the South Lebanese village of Qana provoked international outrage and widespread demands for an immediate ceasefire. Israeli television showed aerial photographs which the army said confirmed that Hizbollah had fired Katyusha rockets from the vicinity of the targeted building. Both Ms Rice and President George Bush urged Israel to avoid civilian casualties, but stopped short of calling for an unconditional truce, which Israel rejects as a victory for Hizbollah.

Mr Bush said at the start of a children's baseball game at the White House: "Today's actions remind us that friends and allies must work together for a sustainable peace, particularly for the sake of children."

Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, demanded immediate action "before many more children, women and men become casualties of a conflict over which they have no control". He told the Security Council it meet his minimal security requirements. Hizbollah fired more than 140 Katyusha rockets at towns and villages in Northern Israel yesterday, the highest daily tally since the start of hostilities on 12. Amir Peretz, the defence minister, said yesterday that the military would continue hitting Hizbollah for two more weeks.

Ms Rice, who had completed scheduled talks with senior Israeli ministers before news broke of the Qana bombing, told reporters she was staying in Jerusalem because, "I have work to do here, on the political arrangements, and on how we get a security environment in Southern Lebanon that will permit a sustainable ceasefire." She insisted that Israel and Lebanon had to agree to a ceasefire and that there had to be "certain conditions" in place that would be acceptable to both. "We cannot have a circumstance in which there is a return to the status quo ante," she argued, "in which there is a zone in Southern Lebanon in which a terrorist can violate the Blue Line [the international border as delineated by the United Nations], and create the kind of devastating circumstances that we see today." Mr Olmert maintained that Israel had "no policy of killing innocent civilians," but he stopped short of an apology. The Prime Minister told his regular Sunday cabinet meeting: " All residents were ... called to leave. There are hiding places for rockets inside the village, which constitute shelter for launchers. Hundreds of rockets have been fired from the village's surroundings and dozens have been fired from inside the village. For 18 days hundreds and thousands of missiles have been fired, aimed at murdering innocent civilians in Northern Israel."

Israel is continuing to resist a ceasefire that would leave Hizbollah free to go on firing rockets, harassing Israeli border patrols and receiving more weapons from Iran and Syria. Ephraim Sneh, a Labour MP who was deputy defence minister when Israel evacuated Southern Lebanon in 2000, said: " A premature ceasefire would be a victory for Hizbollah. If they can still launch rockets on Haifa, it means that the threat has not been removed. In that case, what have we been fighting for?" The rest of the world had less patience.

Nouhad Mahoud, the Lebanese ambassador, accused Israel of "committing atrocities against humanity." Dan Gillerman, his Israeli opposite number, apologised for the air strike, but blamed the tragedy on Hizbollah. "These people," he said, "may have been killed by Israeli fire, but they are the victims of Hizbollah. They are the victims of terror. If there were no Hizbollah, this would never have happened."

In Rome, Pope Benedict called, in the name of God, for "those responsible for this spiral of violence" immediately to lay down their weapons. Margaret Beckett reiterated Britain's call for Israel to act proportionately. "Undoubtedly," the Foreign Secretary said, " today's events will make things worse, at least in the short term."

Day 19

* Dozens of people are reported to have been killed or injured in an Israeli air strike on a building sheltering civilians in Qana.

* In Beirut, hundreds of protesters stage a violent demonstration, attacking the UN building and chanting slogans against the US and in support of Hizbollah.

* Hizbollah guerrillas battle Israeli ground forces.

* Israeli naval vessels fire shells into the hills. Hizbollah's TV station says the group has fired more rockets into Israel.

* Israeli aircraft bomb the homes of two Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, wounding two people.