UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. Security Council called for an end to the violence in Lebanon and deplored Israel's airstrike on a house in the village of Qana which killed 56 people, almost all of them women and children.
A presidential statement, approved unanimously by the 15-member council in an emergency session Sunday, expressed "extreme shock and distress" at the Israeli attack early Sunday morning but stopped short of condemning it.
The council said it "strongly deplores this loss of innocent life and the killing of civilians in the present conflict."
Despite strong support from many council members for an immediate cease-fire, the statement only called for an end to violence and an urgent long-term solution to the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.
"The Security Council expresses its concern at the threat of escalation of violence with further grave consequences for the humanitarian situation, calls for an end to violence, and underscores the urgency of securing a lasting, permanent and sustainable cease-fire," the final document said.
Attempts by Qatar, the only Arab nation on the council, to strengthen the statement prolonged discussions late into the evening. But during the final negotiations, language "calling for a cessation of the current violence," was dropped.
"The Security Council expresses its extreme shock and distress at the shelling by the Israeli Defense Forces of a residential building in Qana, in southern Lebanon, which has caused the killing of dozens of civilians, mostly children, and injured many others," the final statement said.
The statement also called for the council to "work without further delay to adopt a resolution for a lasting settlement of the crisis."
In the three weeks since fighting began, the Security Council's only response has been a weak statement expressing shock and distress at Israel's bombing of a U.N. post on the Lebanon border Tuesday that killed four unarmed U.N. military observers.
At the start of the meeting, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan again demanded an immediate halt to the violence, condemning the Israeli airstrike that demolished a building in Qana. He told the Security Council he was "deeply dismayed" that his previous calls for a cease-fire had gone unheeded.
Annan said the region was growing impatient that the U.N.'s most powerful body had yet to issue any meaningful response after three weeks of war in Lebanon.
"Action is needed now before many more children, women and men become casualties of a conflict over which they have no control," Annan said.
Qatar had circulated a draft statement on behalf of Arab nations meant to address Annan's concerns. It would have called for an immediate cease-fire, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon and condemn the "loss of civilian lives in the town of Qana due to the deliberate targeting" by Israel. It would also have sought an international investigation "into the Israeli massacre."
The sharply worded draft had no chance of being accepted by the full council for the same reason that the council has been able to do little until now. The United States, Israel's closest ally, has so far refused to back Annan's call for a cease-fire, and U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said the U.S. does not want any condemnation of the attack.
Bolton said the statement had to address what the U.S. says is the root cause of the conflict — Hezbollah's continued grip on southern Lebanon and its attacks on Israel.
Bolton said he was "pleased" with the statement, saying its purpose was not to condemn the bombing which is still under investigation.
"It's the loss of civilian life that we regret," he said. "The question of whether it was an accident is obviously something that will be investigated. That's what the government of Israel concludes, and I think in that case it's a tragic consequence of an unavoidable accident of war," he said.
Lebanese special envoy Nouhad Mahoud expressed disappointment with the statement and said Israel's announcement late Sunday that it was suspending airstrikes on south Lebanon for 48 hours was inadequate.
"There is no cease-fire and there is no cessation of hostilities," he told reporters at the United Nations late Sunday, referring to Israel's announcement. "We are looking for much more to spare the civilians more atrocities and more bloodshed."
France's U.N. ambassador, Jean-Marc de la Sabliere, said that after meeting for weeks "producing very little results," the adopted statement was an "acceptable" compromise and shows determination by the council to agree on a resolution to end the conflict.
Speaking before the council, Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman called it a "horrible, sad and bloody Sunday." While he apologized for the airstrike on Qana, he said there was no comparison between Hezbollah, which intentionally targets Israeli civilians and uses Lebanese civilians as human shields, and Israel, which tries to avoid civilian casualties.
"Those people including women and children who were killed in this horrible tragic incident may have been killed by Israeli fire but they are the victims of the Hezbollah," Gillerman said. "They are the victims of terror. If there were no Hezbollah this would never have happened."
Syria's Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari faulted the United States for the attack.
"These bombs which killed 57 children and women are American bombs," Ja'afari said.