Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, said on Monday that there would be no ceasefire in the war in the coming days.

 

"The fighting continues. There is no ceasefire and there will not be any ceasefire in the coming days," he told local officials, to much applause.

 

"We will stop the war when the [rocket] threat is removed ... our captive soldiers return home in peace, and you are able to live in safety and security.

 

"We are fighting against murderous terrorists and the war will not stop until we clear them from the border."

 

He was referring to the Lebanese Shia group that abducted two Israeli troops on June 12 and responded to Israel's ground and air offensive with rocket attacks.

 

Israeli officials said earlier that the government wants to pursue its military offensive until an international force arrives because Hezbollah might regroup if there were any pause in the fighting.

 

UN meeting cancelled

 

But a UN official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the meeting, which had been scheduled for Monday afternoon, had been delayed "until there is more political clarity" on the path ahead in the Middle East conflict.

 

Meanwhile in south Lebanon, civilians fled battered villages after Israel agreed to a partial halt of air strikes for 48 hours, and aid convoys headed into the area to deliver supplies.

 

But a UN official complained that the partial suspension of Israeli air strikes did not go far enough.

 

"In these circumstances, the United Nations is continuing its relief efforts, but the conditions do not yet exist for a major increase in humanitarian operations," the official said.

 

Rescue workers found 28 bodies buried for days in destroyed buildings in three villages in south Lebanon, the Lebanese Red Cross said.

 

"If an immediate ceasefire is declared, the extremists will rear their heads anew"

Amir Peretz, Israel's defence minister

About 600 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.

 

Self-declared truce violated

 

The Israeli military said it had launched a new ground incursion into Lebanon late on Monday, moving troops into the Aita al-Shaab area.

 

Hezbollah said it was engaging the advancing force in fierce fighting.

 

Earlier in the day, Israeli jets dropped two bombs to support troops battling Hezbollah inside Lebanon and artillery shells hit two southern villages.

 

A Lebanese soldier died and three were wounded when another Israeli air strike destroyed their vehicle. And a drone destroyed a truck at the main Lebanon-Syria border crossing.

 

The Israeli army said it believed that a Hezbollah leader was in the car. "They [the soldiers] were, of course, not the targets and we regret the incident," it said.

 

Hezbollah said its fighters hit an Israeli warship with rockets off the coast of the south Lebanese port city of Tyre on Monday, prompting celebratory gunfire to ring out in Beirut.

 

But an Israeli security source said no warship had been hit.

 

And an Israeli government official said that Israel had destroyed two-thirds of Hezbollah's long-range missile capabilities.

 

Stalling

 

Israel has come under mounting pressure to agree to a truce after an international outcry over the deaths of at least 54 civilians, most of them children, in an air strike on the Lebanese village of Qana on Sunday.

 

"Citizens of Lebanon, we are sorry for the pain caused to you, and the fact that you had to pick up and flee your homes, and also the casualties caused among innocents," Olmert said.

 

"But we will not apologise to those who put a question mark on the right of Israel to exist."

 

Olmert's comments came as the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, said that a ceasefire could be forged this week.

 

However, George Bush, the US president, reiterated that he wants "a long-lasting peace, one that is sustainable" and again refused to join calls for a ceasefire, instead defending Israel's "right to defend itself".

 

And the Israeli defence minister, Amir Peretz, separately said that Israel plans to "expand and strengthen" its attack against Hezbollah.

 

"If an immediate ceasefire is declared, the extremists will rear their heads anew," Peretz told parliament.