Lebanon Cancels Rice Meeting; Demands Cease-Fire

The Israeli airstrike in Qana, Lebanon, this morning has instant political repercussions in Lebanon. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora cancelled today's scheduled meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and has said there will be no talks until a cease-fire is in place.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

NPR's Jackie Northam joins us now from Beirut.

Jackie, Israel has repeatedly said it's warned civilians to get out of southern Lebanon. What's your understanding of why civilians are still there?

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

Liane, many people in this area and all along the south - southern stretch of Lebanon, they're poor. These people in town are farmers. They're poor farmers. They don't have the money or the resources to get out of town. There's a shortage of gasoline, and taxis are charging exorbitant prices to drive people to cities like Tyre further up the coast. So people can't afford it.

But many others are just too scared. They're being told to move out of the area, start heading north, by Israel, but then many cars are getting hit by Israeli warplanes while they're on the road. And by the way, this is also making it difficult to get emergency workers into Qana today. The roads are in such bad conditions from all the bombing and it's dangerous.

Now, just a short while ago, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has ordered that humanitarian aid be allowed to reach Qana. That should help, but that's the first time Israel has given any guarantees of safe passage for relief or humanitarian convoys. The U.N. and international aid agencies have been trying to get into towns just like Qana for the past few days to help evacuate and help people like those who were killed last night.

HANSEN: Getting on to some diplomacy, the Lebanese government told Secretary of State Rice not to visit Beirut just now. The prime minister spoke publicly earlier this morning. Can you tell us what he said?

NORTHAM: Well, it was a very short but a very emotional speech, and he was visibly angry. He called on - angry - he called on all the people in the world to stand united against Israel. He said those who died in Qana were martyrs. And he called for an international investigation into the killings.

Most importantly, he said that, simply, now this is not the time for any discussions other than an immediate and unconditional cease-fire. And that, of course, was in reference to any planned talks with Condoleezza Rice. You know, it was one of those thanks but no thanks times. The prime minister made it clear he wants a cessation of fighting, and until then, no discussions.

The other thing...

HANSEN: Jackie...

NORTHAM: ...is that prime minister - yes.

HANSEN: Jackie, I'm afraid I'm going to have to stop you there because we have Ivan Watson in Qana. So I want to thank you very much. NPR's Jackie Northam...

NORTHAM: Thank you.

HANSEN: ...in Beirut, Lebanon.

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