Qana Villagers Refute IDF Claims Building Fell Hours After Strike

IDF renews ground offensive in south Lebanon; 7 IDF soldiers hurt, at least 3 Hezbollah fighters killed.

Hours after an Israel Air Force strike killed at least 54 people in the southern Lebanese town of Qana, Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Sunday that Israel would continue its military assault on Hezbollah targets for at least two more weeks.

The Israel Defense Forces convened a press conference Sunday evening, admitting that while the IAF did indeed strike the building in which the civilians were killed, the attack itself occurred near midnight, while reports of an explosion and the structure's collapse were only received at around 8:30 A.M.

The air force did resume bombing Qana at 7:30 A.M., however the strikes were carried out on targets at a distance of 460 meters from the building.

"The question we don't have an answer to is what happened between 12 midnight and 8 in the morning," said IAF Brigadier General Amir Eshel.

Lebanese villagers in Qana who were witness to the bombing, however, say that the building's collapse occurred in the wee hours of the night.

Witnesses at the scene corroborated the IDF claim that the strike on the building, which is located in the Hariva neighborhood of Qana, was carried out at 1:00 A.M. After the initial strike, some of the building's residents exited in an attempt to survey the damage, in effect saving themselves.

A few minutes later, IAF planes struck the building once again, causing the walls to collapse on the residents who did not vacate, killing them in the process.

Arab media began reporting on the incident after dawn Sunday, approximately seven hours after the strike. The reports did not note, however, that the building collapsed a short time prior to Arab journalists' arrival on the scene.

IDF Head of Operations Directorate Major General Gadi Eizenkot said the Qana incident "will not loosen our grip," adding that aerial strikes intended to harm Hezbollah's capability of launching rockets into northern Israel will continue.

Maj. Gen. Eizenkot noted that Hezbollah operatives fired a total of 150 rockets into Israel, some of which struck Haifa. Eshel pointed out that rocket fire into Haifa has waned in the last few days.

"This is tied to our operations," Eshel said.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday expressed "deep regret" for the Israeli air strike that cost scores of life in the south Lebanese village of Qana, but said Israel would not declare a cease-fire until it had reached the targets it had set at the beginning of the war.

Olmert, responding to harsh international criticism on the strike, said that Hezbollah had used Qana as a 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 Israeli media accounts, Olmert was further quoted as saying that "All the residents [of Qana] were warned and told to leave. No one was ordered to fire on civilians and we have no policy of killing innocent people."

Qana was the scene of an April, 1996, in which 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 1996 Qana village shelling effectively ended the operation. It was also said to be a factor in the subsequent election defeat of then-prime minister Shimon Peres, whose support among Israeli Arabs was sapped by the Qana deaths.

The Lebanese Red Cross officials in Beirut said Sunday that more than 54 people were killed in the air strike, including 27 children.

Peretz has ordered an investigation of the incident.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Sunday "This horrific massacre will not go without a response."

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

IDF renews ground offensiveThe IDF renewed its ground offensive in south Lebanon on Sunday morning. A Nahal division, backed by armored troops, began operating in southern Lebanon, heading toward the village of Taibeh.

The Lebanese army on Sunday opened fire on IAF helicopters attempting to land near a town in the Bekaa valley, preventing them from setting down, Lebanese security sources and witnesses said.

The four helicopters appeared to be trying to land Israel Defense Forces soldiers near the town of Yammouni, they said.

The helicopters flew away before IAF warplanes launched air raids on the area, the sources said.

Seven IDF soldiers were wounded on Sunday in three separate incidents in the Taibeh area in the eastern district of southern Lebanon.

Two of the soldiers were moderately wounded and three suffered light wounds. One of the moderately wounded soldiers was hit on how way to Taibeh, in Kafr al-Adaisa. The IDF is probing the possibility that he was hit bu friendly fire.

At least three Hezbollah fighters were killed in al-Adaisa on Sunday. IDF soldiers also discovered in the village a hidden cache of weapons, including guns, a rocket launcher, and IDF uniforms.

According to the IDF, Hezbollah guerillas have used the village over the last few days as a base to fire rocket at Israel.

Also Sunday, IDF troops clashed with Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon, north of Dovev. Hezbollah fighters sustained injuries in the clashes.