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Lebanon Cancels Talks With Rice Following Israeli Strike


Scheduled talks between Lebanese officials and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were canceled on Sunday following an Israeli air strike that killed at least 50 Lebanese civilians. Israeli officials say they are in no rush to reach a cease-fire in Lebanon.

U.S. led diplomatic efforts to bring an end to more than two weeks of fighting along the Israel-Lebanon border were dealt a serious blow on Sunday after an Israeli air strike against the town of Qana in southern Lebanon. Witnesses say the strike flattened a three story building where as many as 100 civilians were seeking shelter.

Speaking shortly after the attack a visibly angry Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said he would not hold scheduled talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"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 says.

A statement from Secretary Rice on Sunday said she was "deeply saddened by the terrible loss of innocent life in Lebanon." Ms. Rice says she spoke with Lebanon's prime minister on Sunday, and will continue talks with Israeli officials in an effort to bring the issue of a cease-fire before the U.N. Security council later this week. However she says the U.S. will not push for an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon.

"We want a cease-fire as soon as possible," Rice says. "I would have wanted one yesterday if possible, but the parties have to agree to a cease-fire and there have to be certain conditions in place. Any cease-fire has to have circumstances that are going to be acceptable to the parties. We also have to realize that we cannot have a circumstance in which there is a return to the status quo ante, in which there is a zone in southern Lebanon in which terrorists can violate the blue line (Israeli border) and create the kind of devastating consequences we see today."

Israeli officials Sunday blamed Hezbollah for the deaths in Qana, saying the area had been used to launch rockets against Israel. They also said civilians living in and around the town had been repeatedly warned to leave the area.

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday that Israel was in no rush to reach a cease-fire until it had achieved its central goals, which have been described by Israeli officials as freeing two Israeli soldiers Hezbollah holds, and pushing Hezbollah militants out of southern Lebanon, where they can no longer threaten Israel.

Lebanese officials say 34 of those killed in the town of Qana were children. Lebanon's health minister (Mohammad Khalifeh) says the deaths bring the toll from Israel's offensive to 750 people. More than 50 Israelis have been killed.

Lebanese officials say another Israeli airstrike in Yaroun killed five people, including two children. And Israeli ground troops moved a few kilometers into southern Lebanon and fought Hezbollah guerrillas near Taibe.

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