Israeli strike kills U.N. observers

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 26-Jul-06 | Source: International Herald Tribune

Smoke rises from Khiam village that was targeted by Israeli air strikes, in south Lebanon, July 16,2006.
BEIRUT An Israeli bomb destroyed a UN observation post in southern Lebanon, killing at least three unarmed military observers, with one more feared dead.

Prime minister Ehud Olmert of Israel called the U.N. secretary general, Kofi Annan, on Wednesday to express his "deep regret over the mistaken killing of four U.N. peacekeepers," Olmert's office said.

"The prime minister said he has instructed the military to carry out a thorough investigation and that the results will be shared with the U.N. secretary general," the statement said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other key Mideast players gathered in Rome for a meeting Wednesday to discuss proposals for ending the fighting that has claimed more than 400 lives. Key issues were how to disarm Hezbollah and assemble an international peacekeeping force to enforce the peace along the Israel-Lebanon frontier.

On Tuesday, the Israeli defense minister, Amir Peretz, said Israel would maintain a security zone in the south until either a multinational force "with enforcement capability" is deployed on the border or Hezbollah is pushed back in a cease-fire agreement that also cuts off the supply of its weapons.

As part of Israel's ongoing ground offensive, troops sealed off a Hezbollah stronghold and widened their foothold in southern Lebanon. Israeli bombs killed six people in a southern Lebanon town.

On Tuesday, an Israeli bombardment hit the building and bunker of the UN observer post in the southern Lebanese town of Khiam, said Milos Struger, the spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon.

The bunker collapsed on four UN military observers taking shelter. Israeli firing "continued even during the rescue operation," Struger said.

As reports of the attack emerged, Annan rushed out of a hotel in Rome where he had dined with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.

"I am shocked and deeply distressed by the apparently deliberate targeting by Israeli Defense Forces of a U.N. Observer post in southern Lebanon," Annan said in a written statement.

The "coordinated artillery and aerial attack on a long established and clearly marked U.N. post at Khiam occurred despite personal assurances given to me by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that UN positions would be spared Israeli fire," Annan said.

He added that Gen. Alain Pelligrini, the U.N. force commander in south Lebanon, had been in repeated contact with Israeli officers throughout Tuesday "stressing the need to protect that particular U.N. position from attack."

Earlier, Israel's UN Ambassador Dan Gillerman said he was "shocked and deeply distressed by the hasty statement of the secretary general, insinuating that Israel has deliberately targeted the UN post."

Annan said two UN observers were killed and two more were feared dead. Later, the UN reported that a third observer had died.

The U.N. Security Council was expected to receive a briefing on the bombing on Wednesday.

The four victims came from Austria, Canada, China and Finland, UN and Lebanese military officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information to the media.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said he was saddened by the news and that it showed "we should try harder to call on the parties to be restrained and to be calm and restore the peace process of the Middle East immediately."

China's official Xinhua News Agency identified the Chinese fatality as Du Zhaoyu.

It was not immediately known which of the other victims were confirmed dead.

Since fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants began two weeks ago, there have been several dozen incidents of firing close to U.N. peacekeepers and observers, including direct hits on nine positions, some of them repeatedly, a U.N. official said.

Twelve UN personnel have been killed or wounded. They include a Nigerian civilian employee and his wife, also Nigerian, who were killed in the southern port of Tyre.

Israeli commanders said they would not push deep into Lebanon but were determined to stop Hezbollah missiles that have continued despite Israel's punishing raids on Hezbollah targets. A new volley of Hezbollah rockets hit northern Israel, killing a teenage girl, and Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, issued a taped television message saying guerrillas would now start firing rockets deeper into Israel.

Tuesday marked a month since the start of what is now a two-front war between Israel and Islamic militants. On June 25, an Israeli soldier was captured by Palestinian Hamas militants in Gaza, prompting an Israeli offensive there. Two weeks into that flare-up, Hezbollah snatched the two other soldiers.