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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
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Some 150 rockets were fired from the Lebanese village of Qana over the past 20 days, Air Force Chief of Staff Brig.-Gen. Amir Eshel said on Sunday evening.
Speaking to reporters, Eshel added that Hizbullah rocket launchers were hidden in civilian buildings in the village. He proceeded to show video footage of rocket launchers being driven into the village following launches.
Elsewhere on Sunday evening, four IDF soldiers were lightly wounded in fighting in the south Lebanese village of Taibe. The soldiers were wounded when their tank was hit by an anti-tank rocket.
Earlier Sunday, a senior Israeli government official reported that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that he needed 10 days to two weeks to finish the offensive in Lebanon.
Olmert met with Rice on Saturday night to discuss the 19-day-old offensive in southern Lebanon. Their meeting came before the IAF strike in Qana early Sunday.
Following the strike, Olmert and Rice scheduled a new meeting on Sunday evening.
Earlier, Olmert expressed deep regret for the harm inflicted on the civilians in Qana Sunday morning when at least 57 civilians - 37 of whom were children - were killed as the IAF fired missiles at a building in the southern Lebanese town.
"I express deep regret, along with all of Israel and the IDF, for the civilian deaths in Qana," said Olmert. "Nothing could be further from our intentions and our interests than harming civilians - everyone understands that. When we do harm civilians, the whole world recognizes that it is an exceptional case that does not characterize us."
"In contrast," Olmert said, "Hizbullah has launched rockets with the aim of murdering innocent civilians in northern Israel."
The prime minister vowed that the fight against Hizbullah would continue despite the Qana tragedy.
"Hizbullah, like other Islamic terror movements, threatens all civilization. When we decided to respond, we knew that we would need to be strong in the face of difficult situations," said Olmert.
Olmert said that the area was a focal point for the firing of Katyusha rockets on Kiryat Shmona and Afula. He said that from the outset of the conflict, "hundreds of rockets have been fired from the Qana area."
Defense Minister Amir Peretz was also profoundly repentant for the fatal strike, saying, "this is a tragic incident that is a result of war. Hizbullah operates in the heart of populated centers with the full knowledge of endangering the lives of innocent civilians."
The defense minister ordered the IDF to conduct a full investigation into the incident
IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz also expressed sorrow over the loss of innocent life. "We were operating in a place from where Katyushas are being fired and we distributed notices to residents. Unfortunately, people who assembled in the area, whom we were unaware of, were harmed," said Halutz.
Nevertheless, the chief of staff said that the IDF would continue to fight in order to defend northern residents and to bring calm to the region, adding, "the terrorist organizations are taking cover among populated areas. We will continue to operate, causing the minimum harm to civilians."
Some 35 bodies have been recovered from a building that collapsed, but more were still stuck under the rubble, Lebanon's official news agency reported.
Ten years ago, Israel was forced to suspend Operation Grapes of Wrath against Hizbullah after artillery shells accidentally killed over 100 Lebanese refugees in the same village.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora demanded an immediate and unconditional ceasefire and insisted on an investigation into the Qana attack.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she called Saniora to say she would postpone a visit to Beirut on Sunday, and that she had work to do in Jerusalem to end the fighting.
"We are also pushing for an urgent end to the current hostilities, but the views of the parties on how to achieve this are different," she said.
A high-ranking IAF officer said that the IDF had warned the residents of Qana to evacuate the village in anticipation of the airstrikes on Katyusha launchers.
In a statement released on Sunday, the IDF said that as a result of Katyusha rocket attacks, 18 Israelis had been killed and hundreds of others wounded.
"The responsibility for the harm to Lebanese civilians falls on Hizbullah, which uses civilians has human shields," the statement read.
The officer said that the air force had been targeting the village for the past three days and on Saturday night struck ten different targets inside the village. He said the building hit Sunday was picked since intelligence indicated that Hizbullah guerillas were hiding inside, together with Katyusha rockets and launchers.
"We have been attacking in Qana for three days," the IAF officer said. "They have fired dozens of rockets from there over the past week at Kiryat Shmona, Afula and Ma'alot."
The officer added that the guerillas fire rockets and then flee into nearby buildings.
"We warned the residents that we would be attacking there," he said. "We work under the assumption that the villages are empty and that whoever is there is affiliated with Hizbullah."
The officer estimated that Qana was being used by Hizbullah to fire rockets at Israel due to the symbolism in the village. In 1996, Israel was forced to suspend Operation Grapes of Wrath against the Hizbullah after artillery shells killed over 100 Lebanese refugees seeking refuge in a UN building in the village.
Since Saturday morning, the IAF said it had struck over 60 Hizbullah targets throughout Lebanon including more than 10 rocket launchers, dozens of buildings and weapons warehouses, and several Hizbullah bases.
Missiles fired by IAF jets on Friday destroyed three buildings in the village of Kfar Jouz near Nabatiyeh in southern Lebanon. Three people were killed and nine were wounded, including four children, Lebanese security officials said. The raid apparently targeted an apartment belonging to a Hizbullah operative.
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