QANA, Lebanon -- Hours after its warplanes killed dozens of women and children in a bombing raid on this southern Lebanese village, Israel agreed last night to halt its aerial war in Southern Lebanon for 48 hours, as international condemnation mounted over the heavy civilian death toll.
The bombing yesterday morning was the deadliest single episode in 18 days of war. Some estimates put the death toll as high as 57. The United Nations Security Council last night unanimously adopted a statement expressing ``extreme shock and distress" over the attack but stopping short of an appeal for an immediate cease-fire.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said today she will push for a cease-fire and a ``lasting settlement" in the conflict between the Islamist militia Hezbollah and Israel through a Security Council resolution this week.
Most of the victims were women and children from two extended families who had taken refuge from weeks of Israeli attacks in the basement of a half-finished concrete house. The airstrike collapsed a house onto the shelter in this village at the center of Israel's air war against the Hezbollah, whose fighters have fired hundreds of rockets into northern Israel.
``All my neighbors are dead. Why would I want to live?" screamed Zainab Shaloub, 66, as she wandered disconsolately toward a UN excavator crew tearing at the rubble to recover more bodies.
The scene of destruction was beamed around the world by Arab satellite television almost immediately after daybreak, when Lebanese Red Cross volunteers started dragging dust-covered corpses from the wreckage the right to defend its citizens against such attacks. ``Nothing could be further from our intentions and interests than harming civilians," Olmert said.
Israeli officials said the pause in air attacks would allow civilians to flee southern Lebanese villages where Hezbollah forces are dug in.
State Department spokesman Adam Ereli, who was in Israel with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said Israel has reserved the right to hit targets if it learns that attacks are being prepared against them.
Estimates of the number of victims changed throughout the day. The Lebanese government said the attack killed 57 people, including 37 children. Red Cross officials said 56 were killed, the Associated Press reported. Emergency workers at the scene in Qana and in Tyre, where the dead and wounded were transported, said last night they had confirmed only 27 dead so far, but expected a higher final number. Higher numbers came from officials in Beirut.
The civilian death toll brought public outrage to a boiling point in Lebanon and spurred United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to call for a halt to violence. Annan told the UN Security Council in an emergency meeting last night it would be discredited if it failed to take meaningful action to halt the conflict.
``Action is needed now before many more children, women, and men become casualties of a conflict over which they have no control," Annan said.
In Beirut, enraged Lebanese protesters, many of them waving Hezbollah's flag, turned their anger on the UN, ransacking UN offices while staff members hid in the basement.
Some demonstrators carried signs that declared ``Death to America" and ``The missiles come from Israel, but they're made in America."
Meanwhile, Rice canceled a visit to Lebanon after Lebanese government officials said they would discuss only a full and immediate cease-fire. Israel said it can disable Hezbollah in another 10 to 14 days of fighting, but yesterday's casualties appeared tospark discomfort in Israel's staunchest ally, the United States.
``I think it's time to get a cease-fire," Rice said in her most pointed comments about the conflict as she cut short a trip to the Middle East that was supposed to broker an agreement.
Lebanon's prime minister, Fuad Siniora, said there was little left to talk about.
``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," Siniora said.
Israel says hundreds of Katyusha rockets from Qana have killed 18 Israeli civilians and wounded 400.
Hezbollah has ``turned the suburbs of Lebanon to a war front by firing missiles from within civilian areas," the Israeli military said in a statement.
Civilians had been warned to leave the area, the Israeli military said.
The hilly area of southern Lebanon between the Israeli border and the Litani River has borne the brunt of the conflict. Almost all major roads are bombed and shelled daily, making it dangerous for civilians to flee on the dirt tracks and detours still passable by car. Dozens of civilians have been killed by bombs while trying to flee north, and airstrikes have hit at least two ambulances.
[Reuters reported that an Israeli airstrike hit Lebanon's road to Damascus last night at the border with Syria for a second consecutive night , witnesses said. The border was open last night. ]
In Qana, survivors of yesterday's bombing said that the few thousand residents still in the village had no means to flee.
Mohammed Hashem, 30, had gone just hours before the blast to get tinned meat, tuna, hummus, and bread for relatives living in the basement when he said Israeli aircraft began an unusually intense barrage. The results could be seen all over the town, where roads that were cleared three days ago were now littered with debris from destroyed homes, garages, and shopping blocks.
``The Israeli people and American people did this to us," Hashem said. ``They know there are civilians here. The drone could see them."
Every afternoon for the last two weeks, the children of the two families sheltering in the house, the Hashem and Shaloub clans, played in the lot where their farmer parents hung tobacco to dry.
Early yesterday, after 1 a.m., a tremendous explosion ripped through the house, witnesses said.
``It sounded like a volcano," said Ghazi Aydibi, 38, who was sleeping in a basement in the house next door with his wife and two children, who survived unharmed. ``Everyone was thrown against the wall."
Immediately after the explosion, a few survivors dug themselves out of the rubble. Heavy bombing continued around the area, so they lay at the base of a pine tree about 60 feet from the rubble. According to the Red Cross, eight people in the house survived. As many as 63 were inside when the house collapsed.
After 7 a.m. the bombing subsided so rescue crews could get to the site. Throughout the day, teams from the Lebanese Army, Red Cross, and the UN pulled corpses from the twisted wreckage of the house on the edge of Qana, halting their labors only when darkness fell. Israeli planes flew overhead and explosions echoed through the valley.
Qana -- claimed by some to be the site of biblical Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle, turning water into wine at a wedding -- has already been the site of a high civilian death toll in 1996, when Israel shelled a UN compound full of refugees, killing 106.
Residents of the village denied that any fighters used the village as a base. But Hezbollah has deep support among the residents of southern Lebanon, in particular those who chose not to flee; virtually no one admits there are fighters in the area, even though the zip of rockets from the area is not uncommon.
``The resistance never used civilians as human shields," said Sheikh Mohammed Shaloub, whose 6-year-old daughter was killed in the Qana bombing.
His wife and son survived, and the three lay together in a Tyre hospital room.
``They massacre civilians in an effort to make people hate the resistance," Shaloub said, unconsciously touching the wounds on his face as he spoke. ``We tell America and Israel and all who support them that no matter what they destroy, we will never forsake the resistance."