TYRE, Lebanon (Reuters) - Civilians fled battered villages in southern Lebanon on Monday after Israel said it would halt its air strikes but the Jewish state pledged to step up its offensive to root out Hizbollah guerrillas.
Israeli planes fired two bombs into Lebanon to support ground troops battling Hizbollah near the border and artillery shells hit two southern frontier villages, Ramiyeh and Aita Shaab, according to the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said a ceasefire to end the 20-day-old war between Israel and Hizbollah could be forged this week, but Israel rejected any immediate truce.
"We must not agree to a ceasefire that would be implemented immediately," Defence Minister Amir Peretz told a heated parliamentary debate in Jerusalem. "If an immediate ceasefire is declared, the extremists will rear their heads anew."
An Israeli air strike destroyed a Lebanese military vehicle on the main southern coastal road, killing a soldier and wounding three at Qasmiyeh, north of the city of Tyre, security sources said.
Three Israeli soldiers were wounded when a missile hit their tank as they tried to rescue an armoured troop carrier struck earlier by a Hizbollah anti-tank missile in the Kfar Kila area just inside Lebanon, the army said.
Another Israeli tank and armoured vehicle were hit later on Monday, but there were no casualties, the army said.
Hizbollah said it had destroyed two Israeli tanks and damaged a third. It also said it had lost two fighters.
Peretz said Israel would expand and deepen its offensive against Hizbollah despite the suspension of aerial bombardment agreed after a strike on Sunday killed at least 54 civilians, including 37 children, in the village of Qana.
French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin welcomed Israel's pledge to suspend air strikes, but said it was not enough. Paris has repeatedly called for an immediate ceasefire.
As well as suspending air strikes, Israel agreed a 24-hour window to let residents leave and get aid to the worst-hit villages. Two U.N. aid convoys left Beirut for Tyre and Qana.
Civilians drove towards the southern port city of Tyre, 20 km north of the border, white flags fluttering from their cars, buses and pickup trucks.
Some people headed the other way to check on their homes or help relatives trapped in villages by Israeli bombing.
Israel launched its onslaught on Lebanon after Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.
At least 549 people have been killed in Lebanon, although the health minister puts the toll at 750 including bodies still buried under rubble. Fifty-one Israelis have been killed.
The United States has refused to call for an immediate halt to the conflict in Lebanon, which, like Israel, it blames on Hizbollah and its allies, Syria and Iran.
Russia criticised the delay in calling for an immediate truce and France signalled on Monday that Iran should be brought into efforts to bring peace to Lebanon and stop the whole region being destabilised.
"There is of course a country such as Iran ... which is respected and which plays a stabilising role in the region," French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said in Beirut after meeting his Lebanese counterpart.
France is often mentioned by diplomats as a potential leader of an international stabilisation force in south Lebanon.
A Hizbollah member of parliament said the Shi'ite Muslim group's rocket attacks on Israel would not cease until the Jewish state calls off its assault and pulls out its troops.
After the Qana raid Lebanon called off planned talks with Rice, telling her to secure an unconditional ceasefire first.
"This morning, as I head back to Washington, I take with me an emerging consensus on what is necessary for both an urgent ceasefire and lasting settlement. I am convinced we can achieve both this week," Rice told reporters in Jerusalem.
A senior Israeli political source said a ceasefire would only take effect once an international force had deployed.
The source added that Israel's 48-hour suspension of aerial attacks did not include retaliation for any Hizbollah rocket strikes, the assassination of the Shi'ite group's leaders or air support for Israeli ground forces in southern Lebanon.
Diplomats at the United Nations will discuss steps to end the war this week, starting with a meeting on Monday of possible contributors to an international force for south Lebanon.
(Additional reporting by Beirut, Jerusalem, U.N. bureaux)
Did you find this article insightful?