QANA, Lebanon, AP -Israeli missiles hit several buildings in a southern Lebanon village as people slept Sunday, killing at least 56, most of them children, in the deadliest attack in 19 days of fighting.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed “great sorrow” for the airstrikes but blamed Hezbollah guerrillas for using the area to launch rockets at Israel, and said he would not halt the army’s operation.
The Lebanese Red Cross said the airstrike in Qana, in which at least 34 children were killed, pushed the overall Lebanese death toll to more than 500. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice postponed a visit to Lebanon in a setback for diplomatic efforts to end hostilities. She was to return to the U.S. Monday morning, abruptly breaking off her diplomatic mission in the Mideast.
Before the airstrike, Olmert told Rice he needed 10-14 days to finish the offensive in Lebanon, according to a senior Israeli government official. The two said they would meet again Sunday evening.
“We will not stop this battle, despite the difficult incidents this morning,” Olmert said said during Israel’s weekly Cabinet meeting, according to a participant in the meeting. “We will continue the activity and if necessary it will be broadened without hesitation.”
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called an emergency Security Council meeting Sunday at the request of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora
The council was expected to discuss a French-sponsored draft resolution spelling out a series of steps meant to resolve the crisis, including an immediate halt to fighting.
Rice said she had called Saniora to postpone her visit to Lebanon; angry Lebanese officials said it was their government that called off the meeting.
Israeli said it targeted Qana because it was a base for hundreds of rockets launched at Israeli, including 40 that injured five Israelis on Sunday. Israel said it had warned civilians several days before to leave the village.
“One must understand the Hezbollah is using their own civilian population as human shields,” said Israeli Foreign Ministry official Gideon Meir. “The Israeli defense forces dropped leaflets and warned the civilian population to leave the place because the Hezbollah turned it into a war zone.”
Rescuers aided by villagers dug through the rubble by hand. At least 20 bodies wrapped in white sheets were taken away, including 10 children. A row of houses lay in ruins, and an old woman was carried away on a plastic chair.
Villagers said many of the dead were from four families who had taken refuge in on the ground floor of a three-story building, believing they would be safe from bombings.
“We want this to stop!” shouted Mohammed Ismail, a middle-aged man pulling away at the rubble in search for bodies, his brown pants covered in dust. “May God have mercy on the children. They came here to escape the fighting.”
“They are hitting children to bring the fighters to their knees,” he said.
Rice said she was “deeply saddened by the terrible loss of innocent life” in Israel’s attack. But she did not call for an immediate cease-fire in the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militias.
“We all recognize this kind of warfare is extremely difficult,” Rice said, noting it comes in areas where civilians live. “It unfortunately has awful consequences sometimes.”
“We want a cease-fire as soon as possible,” she added.
The United States and Israel are pressing for a settlement that addresses enduring issues between Lebanon and Israel and disables Hezbollah — not the quick truce favored by most world leaders.
Saniora said Lebanon would be open only to an immediate cease-fire.
“There is no place at this sad moment for any discussions other than an immediate and unconditional cease-fire as well as international investigation of the Israeli massacres in Lebanon now,” he told reporters Sunday.
More than 5,000 people protested in central Beirut, denouncing Israel and the United States, some chanting, “Destroy Tel Aviv, destroy Tel Aviv.” A few broke car windows and tried briefly to break into the main U.N. building until political leaders called for a halt to damage.
Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr questioned Israel’s claim that Hezbollah fired rockets from the village. “What do you expect Israel to say? Will it say that it killed 40 children and women?” he told Al-Jazeera television.
Qana, in the hills east of the southern port city of Tyre, has a bloody history. In 1996, Israeli artillery killed more than 100 civilians who had taken refuge at a U.N. base in the village. That attack sparked an international outcry that helped end an Israeli offensive.
Sunday’s attack drew swift condemnation from several world leaders.
French President Jacques Chirac’s office said “France condemns this unjustifiable action, which shows more than ever the need to move toward an immediate cease-fire.”
Jordan’s King Abdullah II condemned “the ugly crime perpetrated by Israeli forces in Qana.”
Lebanese officials said most of their citizens slain in the conflict have been civilians. Thirty-three Israeli soldiers have died, and Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel have killed 18 civilians.
Fighting also broke out between guerrillas and Israeli soldiers in a zone called the Taibeh Project area, about 2 miles inside Lebanon. The Israeli army said one soldier was wounded. Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV claimed two Israeli soldiers were killed.
Heavy artillery rained down on the villages of Yuhmor and Arnoun, close to Taibeh. In northern Israel, rockets fell on Nahariya, Kiryat Shemona and an area close to Maalot, the army said.
Israel has said it would launch a series of limited ground incursions into Lebanon to push back guerrillas, rather than carry out a full-fledged invasion. Israeli troops pulled back Saturday from the town of Bint Jbail, suggesting the thrust, launched a week ago, had halted.
But Lebanese officials reported a massing of troops and 12 tanks near the Israeli town of Metulla further to the northeast, on the tip of the Galilee Panhandle near the Golan Heights, suggesting another incursion could begin soon.
The Security Council has yet to take a stance on the fighting, in part because the United States has not called for a cessation of hostilities.
The French draft circulated also seeks a wide new buffer zone in south Lebanon free of Israeli and Hezbollah forces and monitored by international forces and the Lebanese army.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said the strike on Qana was a “tragedy” but stopped short of calling for a cease-fire.
A peace package Rice brought to the region called for a U.N.-mandated multinational force that can help stabilize in the region, according to a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.
It also proposes: disarming Hezbollah and integrating the guerrilla force into the Lebanese army; Hezbollah’s return of Israeli prisoners; a buffer zone in southern Lebanon to put Hezbollah rockets out of range of Israel; a commitment to resolve the status of a piece of land held by Israel and claimed by Lebanon; and the creation of an international reconstruction plan for Lebanon.
The latter two provisions resembled parts of a proposal by Lebanon’s government. But they fell short of Hezbollah’s demands, including a prisoner swap to free Lebanese held for years in Israeli prisons and the disputed land, known as Chebaa farms, put under U.N. supervision until its status can be resolved.