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U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking after a 48-hour suspension of Israeli air strikes took effect early Monday, said she believed a ceasefire to end fighting between Israel and the Hizbollah guerrilla group in Lebanon could be forged this week.

Rice told reporters in Jerusalem that she would call for a UN resolution this week on the ceasefire and also the establishment of an international stabilisation force for Lebanon.

The Israeli suspension of air strikes in Lebanon began early in the day and covers the entire country, an Israel Defense Forces spokesman said.The suspension of strikes allows for an investigation into Sunday's bombing that killed 56 Lebanese civilians.

Israel will also coordinate with the United Nations to allow a 24-hour window for residents of southern Lebanon to leave the area if they wish, U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told a briefing in Jerusalem.

The pause in overflights began at 2 A.M. Monday (23:00 GMT Sunday) and will last for 48 hours, the IDF spokesman said. An attack on a main highway near Lebanon's border with Syria occurred about two hours before the start of the suspension of air strikes, the IDF said.

Israel reserves the right during the suspension to attack any militants who pose an immediate threat to Israel, like those preparing to launch rockets against Israel or transporting rockets that they are preparing to fire, the IDF said.

Some 37 children were among the dead in the IAF strike early Sunday on a building in the southern Lebanon town of Qana, Lebanese police said. Several houses collapsed and a three-story building where about 100 civilians were sheltering was destroyed, witnesses and rescue workers said.

U.S. President George W. Bush on Sunday renewed his call for a "sustainable peace" in the Middle East while his administration urged Israel to avoid civilian casualties in the wake of an airstrike in Lebanon in which at least 54 people were killed.

"Our hope for peace for boys and girls everywhere extends across the world, especially in the Middle East," the president said before the start of a children's baseball game at the White House.

"Today's actions in the Middle East remind us that friends and allies must work together for a sustainable peace particularly for the sake of children," Bush told the teams of youngsters and visitors.

The White House expressed sorrow earlier Sunday at the deaths of dozens of Lebanese people in the strike, and urged Israel to avoid civilian casualties in the fighting in Lebanon.

But the U.S. also reaffirmed the administration's insistence on reaching a sustainable cease-fire.

"The key here is that we want a cease-fire that will work," press secretary Tony Snow told reporters.

Bush was told before 7 A.M. (1100 GMT) about the attack on Qana and had spoken with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is in Jerusalem.

The administration offered condolences to those killed in the strikes.

"This was a terrible and tragic incident," spokesman Blair Jones said. "We continue to urge the Israeli government to exercise the utmost care so as to avoid any civilian casualties. This tragic incident shows why this is so critical."

The State Department's third-ranking official reaffirmed the White House's position that Israel has the right to defend itself and contended an agreement was near on ending the fighting that has ravaged Lebanon.

Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns expressed optimism despite the airstrike, saying the U.S. was committed to securing a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, and focusing on a multinational force in the region.

"This is a very sad day. We are working toward that cease-fire," Burns said. "We are close to a political agreement between Israel and Lebanon to end this fighting."

Yet he endorsed Israel's military objectives, saying "This has not been a good 2 1/2 weeks for Hezbollah from a military point of view, and they've got to be worried about continued Israeli offensive operations."

The administration has insisted that any cease-fire come with conditions to address long-standing regional disputes, including the insistence by Israel that Hezbollah be disarmed - something the Lebanese government has been unable to do.

"We want to avoid a situation where we essentially put a Band-Aid on something," Burns said. "We have to a have view of a sustainable cease-fire. We have to make sure Hezbollah is not allowed to be in a position to strike again."

Speaking after the bombing in Qana, Rice on Sunday said it was time for a cease-fire in the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

Rice held a second round of talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday evening, after cancelling a scheduled trip to Beirut to hammer out a cease-fire deal with Israel.

Israel, meanwhile, expressed "deep regret" for the deaths and said it would investigate the bombing, which drew widespread international condemnation.

"Israel deeply regrets, is greatly saddened, by this attack on innocent civilians in Lebanon. Israel takes full responsibility and is going to start an open investigation to find out how this happened," government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said.

Rice said she was saddened by the bombing and confirmed that she had cancelled a planned trip to Beirut, but would stay in Israel to try to work out a deal for ending the 19-day-old conflict, which was triggered by Hezbollah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers on July 12.

"I am here in pretty difficult and dicey circumstances because I do believe that it is better to try and address these issues face to face with the parties," she said.

But she repeated her stance that a cease-fire could not mean a return to the previous status quo.

"We have to try and do our work well so that there will not be more and more and more incidents over many, many more years," Rice said.

Rice arrived in Israel on Saturday night, less than a week after her first visit, to present to both sides the basic outline of a UN resolution on a cease-fire. She met with Olmert on Saturday night in Jerusalem, and also held talks with Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Foreign Minister Tizpi Livni.

U.S. officials said Sunday that Rice would return to Washington on Monday to focus on drawing up a UN resolution that will bring about a "sustainable" cease-fire between Hezbollah and Israel.

The Israel Defense Forces confirmed that the IAF hit at least ten targets in Qana. According to the army, the sites targeted were houses occupied by Hezbollah cells that launched Katyusha rockets into Israel in recent days.

The IDF said it had warned residents of Qana to leave and said Hezbollah bore responsibility for using it to fire rockets at Israel.

Olmert said that Qana was used as a Hezbollah base for launching hundreds of rockets at Israel.

"From the village and its surroundings, hundreds of Katyusha [rockets] have been fired at Israel, toward Kiryat Shmona and Afula," Olmert said during a cabinet meeting, according to a participant in the meeting.

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.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz ordered the defense establishment to investigate the incident.

Hezbollah vowed on Sunday to retaliate for the air strike on Qana. "This horrific massacre will not go without a response," Hezbollah said in a statement.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said Sunday he could not hold any talks on resolving the Middle East crisis before an immediate cease-fire.

"There is no place on this sad morning for any discussion other than an immediate and unconditional cease-fire as well as an international investigation into the Israeli massacres in Lebanon now," Siniora told a news conference in Beirut.

In April 1996, Israeli shelling of a base of United Nations peacekeepers in Qana killed more than 100 civilians sheltering there during Operation Grapes of Wrath. The international outcry over the Qana village shelling effectively ended the operation.

Some 40 targets were hit in IAF strikes overnight across Lebanon. Among the targets were buildings used by Hezbollah, rocket launchers and bridges.