Israel to halt air strikes

Israel has agreed to suspend air strikes for 48 hours to investigate an air strike on a southern Lebanese village which killed more than 60.

Gulf News

Israel has agreed to immediately suspend air strikes for a period of 48-hours in order to investigate an air strike on southern Lebanese village which left more than 60 dead.

"Israel has agreed to a 48-hour suspension of aerial activity in south Lebanon," US State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters following talks between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and top Israeli officials.

The army said that the temporary cessation of aerial activity would allow the opening of corridors for 24 hours for Lebanese civilians who want to leave south Lebanon for the north and would maintain land, sea and air corridors for humanitarian assistance.

The number of people who died in the attack on Qana - Israel's bloodiest since the 19-day-old war started - included 37 children.

"We're doing this (halt in strikes) in order to allow a full investigation into what happened in Qana, " he said, "and also in order to create a window for the UN to evacuate people from southern Lebanon, who want to leave southern Lebanon," Israel's ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, told the BBC.

The Israeli military says it warned Qana residents to leave before the strike and said Hezbollah bore responsibility for using the town to fire rockets at the Jewish state. "We were attacking launchers that were firing missiles," said Captain Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman.

In April 1996, more than 100 civilians sheltering at UN peacekeeper base in Qana were killed by Israeli shells during Israel's "Grapes of Wrath" bombing campaign.

Since Sunday's attack Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has toughened his stance, saying he will only discuss an immediate ceasefire and not a full peace package.

At least 545 people have been killed in Lebanon, although the health minister estimated the toll at 750 including unrecovered bodies. Fifty-one Israelis, including 19 civilians have also been killed.

A statement, approved unanimously by the 15-member UN Security Council after hours of talks, expressed "extreme shock and distress" at the deaths but failed to call for an immediate ceasefire, despite an earlier appeal by Secretary General, Kofi Annan who urged for ?an immediate end to hostilities' 

"I am deeply dismayed that my earlier calls for an immediate cessation of hostilities were not heeded," Annan said on Sunday.

Rice ended her peace mission to the Middle East on Monday and said she believed a ceasefire between Israel and
Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon could be forged this week.

In a statement read out in Jerusalem, Rice said she would call for a UN resolution this week on the ceasefire and also
the establishment of an international stabilisation force for southern Lebanon.