U.N. observers asked Israel to stop bombing 10 times before post was hit
JERUSALEM -- U.N. observers in Lebanon telephoned the Israeli military 10 times in six hours to ask it to stop shelling near their position before an attack killed four observers and sparked international anger with Israel, U.N. officials said Wednesday.
The U.N. observation post near Khiam came under close Israeli fire 21 times Tuesday -- including 12 hits within 100 yards and five direct hits from 1:20 p.m. until the peacekeepers' post was destroyed at 7:30 p.m., Jane Lute, assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, told the U.N. Security Council in New York.
U.N. officials said Hezbollah militants had been operating in the area of the post near the eastern end of the border with Israel, a routine tactic to prevent Israel from attacking them.
"We did repeatedly in recent days say to Israel that this was an exposed position, that Hezbollah militants were 500 meters away shielding themselves near U.N. workers and civilians," U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland said. "That's why it is so inexplicable that what happened happened."
Israeli officials had told the United Nations that the bombing around the base was part of an "an aerial preparation for a ground operation," said the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Officials in the outpost called the Israeli army 10 times during those six hours, and each time an army official promised to have the bombing stopped, according to a preliminary U.N. report on the incident, which was shown to an Associated Press reporter on Wednesday.
Once it became clear those pleas were being ignored, the force's commander sought the involvement of top officials in New York, a senior U.N. official in New York said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation of the incident was not yet complete.
U.N. deputy secretary-general Mark Malloch Brown and Lute herself then made several calls to Israel's U.N. mission "reiterating these protests and calling for an abatement of the shelling," Lute said.
The bombing put Israel on the defensive two weeks into its campaign against Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed "deep regret" for the deaths and dismay over U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's accusation that the attack was "apparently deliberate."
Olmert told Annan in a phone call Wednesday that the attack was inadvertent and he promised a "thorough investigation," his office said in a statement.
"It's inconceivable for the U.N. to define an error as an apparently deliberate action," Olmert said.
China called for an Israeli apology and asked the U.N. Security Council to condemn the bombing -- which killed one of its citizens -- and demand Israel stop attacking U.N. positions and personnel.
"For China and for others, we condemn this because I think any attack on the United Nations positions and the United Nations personnel is inexcusable and unacceptable," China's U.N. Ambassador Wang Guangya said.
Austria and Finland, both of which also lost citizens in the attack, condemned the bombing, with Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja calling it "truly tragic." The fourth victim was Canadian.
"These so-called precision attacks seem to be mainly targeting everyone else except the Hezbollah," Tuomioja said. "The longer this continues, the more likely it is that there will be more similar victims."
White House spokesman Tony Snow described the strike as a "horrible thing," but said Israel was behaving responsibly in its aftermath.
"They'll be completely transparent in the way they conduct the investigation," Snow said. "And I think that's the appropriate way to proceed."
U.N. officials said the observation position was well marked. A picture the world body released Wednesday showed the three-story building was painted white with the letters "U.N." emblazoned in large black letters on all sides, and a light blue U.N. flag hung from a nearby flagpole that was roughly 50 feet high. Witnesses said the building, which was surrounded by concrete blast walls and barbed wire, also had the letters U.N. painted on the roof and it was illuminated by floodlights at night.
During the shelling, the observers took refuge in a bomb shelter designed to withstand a strike by a 155mm artillery shell, U.N. officials said. The bunker collapsed in the attack, and the extent of the damage suggests it was hit with a large bomb, said Brig. Gen. J.P. Nehra, the deputy force commander for the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon known as UNIFIL.
"We can only say the destruction of the bunker was quite devastating, of the kind that aerial bombs can achieve. The ones of the very heavy variety," he said.
After the blast, Israel agreed to give UNIFIL safe passage for two armored personnel carriers to evacuate the position, Lute said. They arrived at 9:30 p.m. "and found the shelter collapsed and major damage to the rest of the position," she said.
Despite negotiating safe passage, those APCs also came under Israeli attack, she said, adding that the attacks continued Wednesday when an artillery round hit about 10 yards from UNIFIL headquarters in the town of Naqoura.
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. As a result of these attacks, 12 U.N. personnel have been killed or injured, U.N. officials said.
During an Israeli offensive against Lebanon in 1996, artillery blasted a U.N. base at Qana in southern Lebanon, killing more than 100 civilians taking refuge with the peacekeepers.
The U.N. mission, which has nearly 2,000 military personnel and more than 300 civilians, is to patrol the border line, known as the Blue Line, drawn by the United Nations after Israel withdrew troops from south Lebanon in 2000 and ended an 18-year occupation.
On Wednesday, dovish lawmaker Ran Cohen, a colonel in the Israeli army reserves, said that from his experience in Lebanon, it was quite possible to make such a mistake.
"I have not even the slightest doubt that we're talking here about a mistake, technical or otherwise. The army, as long as I've known it and I'm fairly critical, never wants to hit UNIFIL forces," Cohen said.
Associated Press reporter Nick Wadhams contributed to this report from the United Nations.