July 31, 2006

In News

* Lebanon says Rice unwelcome
* Offensive ‘right thing to do’: Olmert
* Major new incursion by Israeli military
* Australia asked to join UN force

A Red Cross rescuer worker walks past dead bodies after Israeli air strikes on the southern Lebanese village of Qana.
Photo: AFP

An Israeli air strike killed at least 54 Lebanese civilians, including 37 children, in the southern village of Qana today, police said. It was the bloodiest single attack during Israel’s 19-day-old war on Hezbollah.

The attack prompted the Lebanese government to cancel a planned visit to Beirut by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said he would hold no negotiations before a ceasefire and officials said they had told Rice to stay away from Beirut until the fighting stopped.

Siniora denounced “Israeli war criminals”. He demanded an immediate, unconditional ceasefire and an international investigation into “Israeli massacres”.

The air strike, whose target was not immediately clear, occurred as Rice was in Jerusalem on a mission to persuade Israel and Lebanon to agree on an international force to deploy on the border.

Israel’s offensive in Lebanon will continue, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet today. Israel’s air force was unaware that civilians were sheltering in the building, the military chief said.

Mothers embraced their dead children in shock today as rescue workers tackled the rubble and dust of buildings flattened by the raids.

Rescue workers using only their bare hands searched through piles of debris – all the Israeli raids left behind of the buildings – while distraught women joined in to retrieve the bodies and take them away.

A three-storey building in Qana where dozens of displaced civilians were sheltering and several other houses were destroyed in the dawn raid, killing many people in their sleep.

Lebanese Red Cross officials in Beirut said rescuers had extracted 38 bodies from the devastated buildings, including 23 children, and seven wounded. At least 17 more bodies were feared to be still under the rubble, seven of them children.

Red Cross workers covered the corpse of one dead child with a blanket. A woman in a red-patterned dress lay crumpled and lifeless in the broken masonry. A leg poked out from the rubble nearby. Another child lay dead in the street.

Distraught people in Qana screamed in grief and anger amid wrecked buildings as others scrabbled at slabs of concrete with their hands to try to reach people buried in the debris.

Israel’s military said it had warned residents of Qana to leave and said Hezbollah bore responsibility for using it to fire rockets at the Jewish state.

Among the buildings hit in the two hours of raids on the southern village of Qana was a shelter where dozens had fled to escape Israeli bombardment of areas thought to be even more exposed.

“After the bombardment there was dust everywhere. We couldn’t see anything. I succeeded in getting out and everything collapsed. I have several members of the family inside and I do not think there will be any other survivors,” said a distraught Ibrahim Shalhoub, 26.

“The bombing was so intense that no one could move. Rescue efforts could only start this morning,” said the man, one of just five people believed to have survived the strike on the shelter.

The bodies of 22 children were among those recovered from under the rubble of dozens of buildings which collapsed after the bombardment, said Salam Daher, the civil defence chief in the region.

“I retrieved my son and my husband, Sheikh Mohamad, who were wounded. But when I came back to get my daughter who had stayed in the shelter, it was too late because the building had crumpled,” cried a woman identified as Rahba.

Terrified mothers held up and then embraced the bodies of their dead children, still wearing the pyjamas they had gone to sleep in. The bodies were covered in dust.

In Israel, the military rejected responsibility for civilian deaths in Qana, saying the Shiite militant Hezbollah was to blame for using the village as a rocket-launching site.

“The Hezbollah used the village of Qana as a base to launch rockets and it bears responsibility that this area is a combat zone,” army spokesman Jacob Dalal told AFP.

“There was a first bombardment at 1am (0800 AEST),” said resident Ghazi Aaidibi. “A few people went out of the shelter and about 10 minutes later a second bombardment destroyed it. There were 63 people inside, from the Shalhub and Hashem families.”

Rescue operations had to stop in the morning over fears that the final storey of the building was about to collapse.

We will not stop offensive: Olmert

Israel’s offensive in Lebanon will continue despite the bombing of Qana, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert told his cabinet.

“We will not blink in front of Hezbollah and we will not stop the offensive despite the difficult circumstances. It is the right thing to do,” the Ynet website quoted Olmert as saying.

“Hezbollah, like all Islamic terror, threatens all Western civilisation. When we decided to respond, we knew we would face tough situations. We will get through them and we will win.”

Earlier, Olmert said his country was “in no rush” for a ceasefire, and Israeli forces thrust across the border sparking new clashes with Hezbollah guerrillas.

Israeli warplanes struck Qana only hours after Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah threatened to rocket more cities in central Israel if attacks on Lebanon continued.

“There are many cities in central Israel which will come into target range … if the barbaric aggression on our country and people continues,” he said yesterday.

Israel’s air force was unaware that civilians were sheltering in a building it bombed in Qana, the military chief said.

“We did not know of the whereabouts of civilians in the village,” Lieutenant-General Dan Halutz was quoted as saying by the NRG Maariv website after meeting President Moshe Katsav.

A senior air force commander said a precision-guided bomb was dropped on a home in Qana on the assumption that it was sheltering Hezbollah crews that had fired several volleys of missiles into northern Israel.

“Had we known there were that many civilians inside, especially women and children, we certainly would not have attacked it,” the commander told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Asked how Israel’s intelligence services could know about missile launches from Qana but not about the presence of dozens of civilians, the commander said: “We are capable of detecting missile launches because they are very dynamic.”

By contrast, he said the civilians appeared to have been holed up in the building for days, and were therefore almost impossible for aerial surveillance systems to discern.

According to the officer, Hezbollah launched scores of missiles from Qana into Israel, including one that hit a hospital. He said several of the launched took place within a few dozens metres of the house that was bombed.

Halutz indicated that despite international outcry over the Qana killings, Israel would pursue its 19-day-old campaign against Hizbollah until the cross-border missile salvoes ended.

“We will continue to fight and residents of northern (Israel) will receive quiet and calm. It will take more time but it will happen,” NRG quoted him as saying.

Raid described as massacre

Lebanese television stations described the raid on Qana as a massacre. The village is already a potent symbol of Lebanese civilian deaths at the hands of Israel’s military.

In April 1996, Israeli shelling killed more than 100 civilians sheltering at the base of UN peacekeepers in Qana during Israel’s “Grapes of Wrath” bombing campaign.

At least 523 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and 51 Israelis have been killed in the conflict that erupted after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.

Israeli soldiers killed five Hezbollah guerrillas today during a new ground incursion into southern Lebanon, a military spokeswoman said.

She said tanks and troops exchanged fire with Hizbollah squads after crossing the border at the Israeli village of Metula in a search for guerrillas hideouts and rocket launchers.

Confirming a major new incursion into Lebanon, the Israeli military said tanks and troops had rolled across the border at Metula, under cover artillery fire and air strikes, to try to find and destroy Hezbollah rocket launchers.

An Israeli army spokeswoman said at least one soldier had been wounded in fighting, in which she said Hezbollah had also suffered casualties. Hezbollah reported fierce clashes.

Before Lebanon cancelled her visit, Rice had said she hoped for a deal on ceasefire terms to be outlined in a UN Security Council resolution that may be presented as early as Tuesday.

After meeting Olmert in the evening, Rice held talks with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni today. She had been expected to meet Siniora in Beirut later in the day.

Israel’s Haaretz newspaper quoted defence sources as saying the army had orders to accelerate its offensive, assuming it had another seven to 10 days before it had to stop fighting.

As the recovery efforts continued, Israeli jets continued to launch sporadic raids around the outskirts of Qana.

Today’s blistering air assault on the village came as Israeli forces made a new ground incursion into Lebanon and were engaged in fierce battles with Hezbollah guerrillas in the southeastern border area, Lebanese police said.

Meanwhile Lebanon’s main international border crossing was closed, a day after Israeli warplanes targeted the road to Syria, further increasing the country’s isolation, an AFP correspondent at the scene said.

Heavy bombs had gouged out large craters on the road leading to the Syrian border at Masnaa in eastern Lebanon, he said.

Australia asked to join UN force

Australia has been invited by the United Nations to contribute to a planned international peacekeeping force for southern Lebanon, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says.

Australia is yet to decide whether it would join the force, but Mr Downer said any contribution would be “very limited”.

The US Secretary of State, Dr Rice, has asked Australia to be part of an international force which would move into the war-torn region once a ceasefire is negotiated.

But while the Federal Government is considering a peace-keeping role, the Opposition says it should focus first on securing a cease fire in the conflict.

About 600 people have died in three weeks of fighting between Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerillas.

Australian officials will attend a meeting at the United Nations in New York tomorrow to work out details of a peacekeeping plan.

Mr Downer appears wary of extending Australian overseas military commitments beyond current operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor and Solomon Islands.

“I discussed the issue with Condi Rice and she was very enthusiastic about there being some sort of an Australian contribution, though I told her that would inevitably be a very limited one if that were to happen,” Mr Downer told the Nine Network.

Any peacekeeping force would need to be of at least 10,000 troops, and have the full political backing of both Israel and Lebanon, he said.

The UN asked Australia to be represented at tomorrow’s meeting in New York – and the US urged it to attend, too – to discuss the possible makeup of the peace-keeping force, Mr Downer said.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) deputy secretary David Ritchie and the Vice Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie, will attend the meeting.

Mr Downer stressed that a decision on joining a peace-keeping operation was “a long way off”.

The defence lobby group, the Australia Defence Association, said the most the ADF could spare would be a company of troops – about 120 personnel.

Executive director Neil James said the force would require battle-ready troops, backed by armoured vehicles, in an operation to disarm Hezbollah.

“We’re already quite stretched. The type of forces we’d have to send would be forces capable of high intensity battle,” Mr James said.

“It won’t be a peace-keeping operation because there’s no peace to keep.”

Prime Minister John Howard and Defence Minister Brendan Nelson have said Australia stands ready to contribute.

Mr Downer said Australia was not “putting up our hand” for the operation, but the US, the UN and others recognised the ADF as one of the world’s most effective.

Labor said the Government’s policy on sending troops to Lebanon was in disarray, however, and it should be focusing on securing a ceasefire.

“If an Australian government is going to send our men and women in uniform into a war zone, for God’s sake, can they please get their policy straight,” opposition foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd said.

“The Government doesn’t really understand that it’s putting the cart before the horse. The first step is a ceasefire and the second is the putting together of a multinational peace-keeping force.”

Dr Rice has said she hopes for agreement on conditions for a ceasefire to be outlined in a UN resolution that could be tabled as early as Tuesday.