Israel Stages Limited Attacks on Lebanon

Israeli ground forces continue attacks inside southern Lebanon. Israel's defense minister says the army needs more time to complete the offensive against Hezbollah, but diplomatic pressure for a cease-fire is growing.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said today there is no cease-fire and there will not be any cease-fire in the coming dayS. Israel launched several airstrikes against targets in Lebanon despite its decision last night to suspend airstrikes for 48 hours. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice convinced the Prime Minister to suspend airstrikes yesterday after the Israeli air force bombed an apartment building in Qana in southern Lebanon, leaving more than 50 civilians dead, most of them children.

Today Prime Minister Olmert apologized to the citizens of Lebanon. He said, we are sorry for the pain caused to you. But, he added, we will not apologize to those who put a question mark on the right of Israel to exist. Hezbollah rockets did hit northern Israel today, but far fewer than in previous days.

NPR's Mike Shuster joins us now from northern Israel, near the Lebanese border. And Mike, what was the purpose of this temporary suspension of airstrikes?

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

Well, the Israelis said in the first 24 hours they were going to let humanitarian aid into the towns of southern Lebanon that have been devastated and they were also going to let this be a window where those Lebanese who were still living in the towns in southern Lebanon could leave if they want and move north. And over the course of the 48 hours, the Israelis said that they would carry out an investigation of their bombing in Qana and how it came to be that this apartment building was hit.

But the Israelis said that it was not going to be a complete suspension of airstrikes. They always held out the possibility that they might continue bombing in order to support their troops on the ground inside Lebanon, and there are some still there, or to attack Hezbollah rocket launchers or teams of Hezbollah guerrillas that were launching rockets that they could see. So there were some bombs today, but overall the number of Israeli airstrikes was much lower than its been throughout this war.

BLOCK: We mentioned that there were some rocket attacks from Hezbollah into Israel today. What can you tell us about that?

SHUSTER: Today there were just a handful. It seemed that Hezbollah was responding in particular to Israeli artillery strikes on some of the mountain towns where there's fighting inside Lebanon. But overall, Hezbollah seems to have decided to match the lowering of the Israeli airstrikes with lowering their own rocket attacks on Israel.

BLOCK: And what about the Israeli offensive on the ground?

SHUSTER: Well, this has been going on just outside the town of Metula, which is north of where I am just a few miles. And today there was more fighting inside, in a couple of towns, between Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas. The Israelis have taken some casualties, some wounded. Hezbollah has been able to put a couple of tanks out of commission with anti-tank missiles.

And as a result, there were airstrikes on these areas and especially heavy was artillery. There was a lot of artillery action this afternoon near where I was. And you could go into the valley and see the strikes hitting the towns in the side of the mountain that's Lebanon. That limited fighting, though, is fairly intense.

BLOCK: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returned to Washington today and she says she intends to seek a cease-fire through the U.N. Security Council this week. Is there a sense that the relative lull in the fighting there now could actually evolve into a true cease-fire?

SHUSTER: I think on the part of some people there's a hope that it'll evolve that way, but the Israeli leaders are emphasizing that they don't believe there'll be a cease-fire anytime soon. They are implying that they may expand their war after this 48-hour period. The Lebanese and the Lebanese government want a cease-fire. It sounds like Secretary of State Rice is more energetic now in seeking a cease-fire, but the Israelis say no.

BLOCK: NPR's Mike Shuster, speaking with us from just outside the town of Kiryat Shmona, in northern Israel. Mike, thanks very much.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Melissa.

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