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Dozens of civilians reported killed in Israeli airstrike

QANA, Lebanon -- An Israeli airstrike today killed at least 40 Lebanese civilians, including 21 children, in the southern village of Qana, in the bloodiest single attack during Israel's 19-day-old offensive against Hezbollah, Reuters reported.

Israel's military said it had warned residents of Qana to leave and said Hezbollah bore responsibility for using it to fire rockets at Israel. Distraught people in Qana screamed in grief and anger amid the rubble of wrecked buildings.

While Reuters reported that at least 40 Lebanese civilians were killed, the Associated Press quoted Lebanese officials as saying that at least 20 bodies were pulled from the rubble, and dozens were trapped inside.

Several houses collapsed and a three-story building where about 100 civilians were sheltered was destroyed, witnesses and rescue workers said.

Lebanese Red Cross workers covered the corpse of one dead child with a blanket. A woman in a red-patterned dress lay crumpled and lifeless in the broken masonry.

A leg poked out from the rubble nearby. A child lay dead in the street.

Yesterday, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah declared victory after Israel announced that it was withdrawing its forces from the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil, where Israeli troops found unexpected difficulty in dislodging the guerrilla group from its strongholds.

Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, defended the decision to pull troops from Bint Jbeil, saying Israel had accomplished its mission. But Nasrallah's declaration underscored the propaganda gains the Islamic militia is attempting to reap across the Muslim world as it battles Israeli forces.

"The Israelis are ready to halt the aggression because they are afraid of the unknown," Nasrallah said in a speech in which he also expressed measured support for the Lebanese government's efforts to reach a peace agreement.

On the 18th day of fighting, Hezbollah fired at least 39 rockets into Israel, wounding about a dozen people.

Israel continued its bombing campaign. An Israeli strike outside the market town of Nabatiyeh crushed a house, killing a woman and her five children, and a man in a nearby house, Lebanese security officials said. Elsewhere, six bodies were dug from the rubble of a house destroyed Friday in the town of Ain Arab, of- ficials said.

An Israeli airstrike closed Lebanon's main crossing point to Syria yesterday for the first time since the conflict started, security offi cials said. Three airstrikes hit the road between Lebanese and Syrian immigration offices in the Masnaa area in the eastern Bekaa Valley, but on the Lebanese side of the border, they said. There were no casualties.

Israeli bombings also wounded two Indian peacekeepers at a United Nations observation post in southern Lebanon, days after an Israeli airstrike killed four UN observers.

Despite its intense bombardment of Lebanon -- and heavy ground fighting near the border -- Israel has been unable to stop the barrages of hundreds of Hezbollah rockets.

Guerrillas fired at least 39 rockets into Israel yesterday, injuring five people.

Israel's pullback of its forces from Bint Jbeil ended the bloodiest siege in what has so far been only a limited ground incursion into southern Lebanon.

The weeklong battle underscored Israel's difficulty in pushing back guerrillas who have been preparing for years for this fight, building up arsenals and digging tunnels and shelters in caves.

The bombardment by Israeli forces and rocket fire from guerrillas was intense yesterday morning around the Hezbollah stronghold, Lebanese security officials said. But by the afternoon, Israel had withdrawn.

Major General Udi Adam, head of Israel's northern command, said Israel never intended to get "stuck in one place." He said the real mission -- "to destroy infrastructure and kill terrorists" -- had been a success.

Material from McClatchy Newspapers and the Associated Press was included in this report.

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