Villagers flee south Lebanon

Villagers flying white flags from cars, buses and pickup trucks flooded out of south Lebanon on Monday after United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice won from Israel a brief suspension of devastating air strikes.

Rice said she believed a ceasefire to end the 20-day war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas could be forged this week, but some fighting went on.

Civilians drove towards the southern port city of Tyre, fleeing after an Israeli air raid on Sunday killed 54 civilians in the village of Qana. Some people headed the other way to check on their homes or help relatives in battered villages.

As well as the 48-hour halt to aerial attacks, Israel agreed a 24-hour window to let residents leave the area and allow aid workers to reach the worst-hit villages. Two United Nations aid convoys left Beirut for Tyre and Qana.

Despite intensifying world pressure for a truce following the deaths of dozens of children in the Qana attack, Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz said an immediate ceasefire would play into Hezbollah’s hands.

“We must not agree to a ceasefire that would be implemented immediately.
Only whoever manages to neutralise terror can bring peace,” Peretz told a heated parliamentary debate.

“If an immediate ceasefire is declared, the extremists will rear their heads anew. In a few months we will be back in the same place,” he said.

Israel launched its onslaught on Lebanon after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.

Israeli artillery pounded targets in south Lebanon, killing one civilian overnight. Israeli fighters launched air strikes in eastern Lebanon near Syria overnight but Israel said the attacks occurred before the start of the 48-hour suspension.

The United States has refused to call for an immediate halt to the conflict in Lebanon, which, like Israel, it blames on Hezbollah and its allies, Syria and Iran.

A Hezbollah member of Parliament said the Shi’ite Muslim group’s rocket attacks on Israel would not cease until the Jewish state calls off its assault and pulls out its troops.

Emerging consensus

After the Qana air raid Lebanon called off scheduled talks with Rice and told her to stay away until an unconditional ceasefire was in place.

“This morning, as I head back to Washington, I take with me an emerging consensus on what is necessary for both an urgent ceasefire and lasting settlement. I am convinced we can achieve both this week,” she told reporters in Jerusalem.

A senior Israeli political source said a ceasefire with Hezbollah will only take effect once an international force has deployed in south Lebanon.

The source added that Israel’s 48-hour suspension of aerial attacks did not include retaliation for any Hezbollah rocket strikes, the assassination of the Shi’ite group’s leaders or assistance to Israeli ground forces in southern Lebanon.

The UN Security Council deplored Sunday’s bombing of Qana, the deadliest single attack of the war, but did not demand an immediate ceasefire.

At least 545 people have been killed in Lebanon, although the health minister puts the toll at 750 including bodies still buried under rubble. Fifty-one Israelis have been killed.

Diplomats at the United Nations will discuss steps to end the war this week, starting with a meeting on Monday of possible contributors to an international force for south Lebanon.

France has seized the initiative and circulated a draft resolution at the weekend on elements for a sustainable ceasefire and preparations for an international stabilisation force, which the council will discuss on Monday or Tuesday.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who like his US ally has refused to call for an immediate truce, said there was a “real chance” of getting a UN resolution to halt the fighting.

The 15-nation Security Council unanimously adopted a statement expressing “extreme shock and distress” at the Qana killings, but did not call for an immediate end to fighting.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said he was “deeply dismayed” his previous calls for such a truce had gone unheeded.

World Food Programme spokesperson Robin Lodge said nine trucks were going to Tyre with aid for Palestinian refugees and six trucks would go on to Qana with food and medical supplies.

Rescue workers called off the search in Qana for bodies or survivors after hours of digging through the rubble with their hands, lifting out the twisted, dust-caked corpses of children. - Reuters

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