Israel has agreed to a 48-hour cessation of bombing activity over southern Lebanon while it investigates an attack on a Lebanese village that killed a number of children, U.S. officials confirmed Sunday.
Israel, along with the United Nations, will co-ordinate a 24-hour window for civilians to leave southern Lebanon if they wish, U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said. He said Israel reserved the right to take action against hostile fire.
"The United States welcomes this decision and hopes that it will help relieve the suffering of the children and families of southern Lebanon," Ereli told reporters.
The decision to suspend the aerial campaign was reached after a deadly Israeli attack on the village of Qana, which killed at least 56 people, mainly women and children. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan immediately renewed his call for a ceasefire.
"I reiterate my call for an immediate cessation of hostilities to allow desperately needed humanitarian relief to reach the victims," Annan told the Security Council as the meeting began.
"Action is needed now before many more children, women and men become casualties of a conflict over which they have no control," he said.
The UN meeting was called after France put forward a draft resolution for a ceasefire in the region.
"We must deliver the region from this seemingly endless cycle of violence," Annan said, condemning the air strike in Qana.
"I am deeply dismayed that my earlier calls for an immediate cessation of hostilities were not heeded," Annan said.
Lebanese, Israeli officials address meeting
Lebanese Foreign Ministry official Nouhad Mahmoud told the meeting his government was outraged by the deaths at Qana.
"We can only reassert that there is not place on this sad day for any discussion other than our call for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire," he said.
"I know that deep within you, in your heart of hearts, you know that Israel is committing atrocities on a scale that your conscience cannot tolerate," Mahmoud said.
Dan Gillerman, Israel's ambassador to the UN, apologized for the attack, calling it "a sad, a bloody Sunday."
But he said those who were killed "are the victims of Hezbollah, they are the victims of terror."
U.S. President George W. Bush said his country mourns the loss of any innocent life, and reiterated that the U.S. is resolved to work with the UN to create a sustainable peace.
"May God bless those who have lost their lives," Bush said at the White House.
On a visit to San Francisco, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he supported moves to get a ceasefire framework in place.
"We have to speed this entire process up, get a resolution now and on the passing and agreement on that resolution, then the hostilities have got to stop and stop on all sides," he told reporters.
Rice visit fuelled ceasefire speculation
Speculation had been growing that a peace plan might begin to emerge following the return Saturday to Jerusalem by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Heading to Israel, Rice had spoken of the need for "give and take" in ceasefire discussions. And Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah had agreed to co-operate with the Lebanese government in negotiations aimed at ending the crisis.
However, by Sunday word came that Rice would instead leave the region and return to Washington.
Rice also cancelled a planned visit to Beirut on Sunday, hours after the air strike in Qana.
"In the wake of the tragedy that the people of Lebanon are facing today, I have decided to postpone my trip to Beirut," Rice said.