Israelis kill Canadians, Chinese, Austrians and Finns.
Times Online July 26, 2006
UN troops carry the body of one of the four unarmed military observers killed, at a hospital in the southern city of Marjayoun, Lebanon (AP/Lotfallah Daher)
Annan points finger at Israel over UN peacekeeper killings
By Philippe Naughton, and Stephen Farrell in the Meron Mountains
Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, accused Israel today of ignoring repeated warnings from United Nations staff before the bombing of a UN observer post in southern Lebanon that killed four peacekeepers.
The bombing last night overshadowed a ministerial conference in Rome today called to formulate an international response to the crisis and came as 13 Israeli soldiers were reported to have been killed in the battle for control of a Hezbollah stronghold near the Israeli border.
Speaking after Arab and Western ministers agreed in Rome to work towards a sustainable ceasefire in Lebanon, Mr Annan said that he accepted the expression of deep regret offered him by Ehud Olmert, the Israel Prime Minister, in a telephone call this morning.
But he refused to back down from his own statement, made only an hour after the bombing, that the attack had been "apparently deliberate", saying that the shelling around the UN base at Khiyam began early in the morning and went on until 7pm, when contact with the post was lost.
He said that during that time UN staff were in constant touch with the Israeli army, "telling them, 'We have people down there, please do not harm them.'"
The BBC reported the contents of an initial UN report into the deaths, which said that UN staff had telephoned Israeli commanders ten times to warn them that the base was in danger of being hit and were reassured each time that the shelling would stop.
In a statement, the Israel Defence Forces confirmed that its soldiers had been operating yesterday in the Khiyam area, from which, it said, Hezbollah guerrillas had been launching rocket attacks against Israel.
"Following an initial inquiry it appears that during the operation the UN post was unintentionally hit," it said. "The IDF expresses deep regret over the incident and stresses that it would never intentionally target any UN facility or personnel. The IDF is launching a full investigation in close co-ordination with the UN."
More than 400 people have been killed in a two-week Israeli offensive on Lebanon, mostly civilians caught up in air strikes. If today's reports are proved correct, more than 50 Israelis have been killed, including 18 civilians killed in Hezbollah rocket fire on northern Israel.
Those attacks continued today - an Israeli official said that at least 119 rockets were fired over the border - despite fierce clashes around the Hezbollah stronghold of Bint Jbeil, where Israeli armoured units have been fighting Hezbollah guerrillas since the weekend.
The al-Jazeera news channel said that 13 Israelis were killed in the fighting. Hussein Rahhal, the Hezbollah chief spokesman, said: "What I can tell you is that 13 Israelis have been burnt alive in their tanks on our land."
Israeli officials confirmed that there had been casualties but gave no more details. If the al-Jazeera report is true it would be the Israeli army's worst day since an ambush in a West Bank refugee camp four years ago, in which 13 soldiers were killed.
As expected, the ministers in Rome failed to agree much more than a form of words expressing their concern for Lebanon, supporting the Lebanese government and calling for Israeli restraint. They also agreed on the need for a UN-mandated force to secure the border zone.
A statement read by Massimo D'Alema, the Italian Foreign Minister, said that they vowed to work "immediately to reach with the utmost urgency a ceasefire that puts an end to the current violence and hostilities". That ceasefire, he said, "must be lasting, permanent and sustainable".
The inclusion of the word "sustainable" was significant since the United States has insisted that no truce could be sought until Israel's prime military objective - the removal of the threat from Hezbollah - is met.
"We have to have a plan that will actually create conditions in which we can have a ceasefire that will be sustainable," said Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State.
The Rome conference featured an impassioned speech from Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese Prime Minister, who asked: "Is the value of human rights in Lebanon less than that of citizens elsewhere? Are we children of a lesser God?"
Mr Siniora said that there were dangers in delaying a ceasefire. "The more we delay a ceasefire, the more we are going to witness more ... of the destruction and more of the aggression against civilians in Lebanon."
Amir Peretz, the Israeli Defence Minister, said yesterday that 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.
"We have no other option," he said. "We have to build a new security strip that would be a cover for our forces."
Much of the discussion focused on who would lead the border force and what its mandate would be. Signor DíAlema said that it would need a UN mandate, while Israel favours a Nato-led force - an idea which Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the Nato chief, thought was premature.
President Chirac of France told Le Monde that his country could play a major role in an international force, though disarming Hezbollah should not be part of its mandate. He said that Nato should not be involved in the force because "like it or not, it is perceived in the region as the armed wing of the West".
The conflict was also discussed in Kuala Lumpur, at a meeting of foreign ministers from the ten-member Association of South East Asian Nations, observed a minute's silence to mark the death of Du Zhaoyu, a Chinese peacekeeper killed in the Israeli air raid. Mr Du was one of 180 Chinese soldiers and observers deployed in Lebanon.
Li Zhaoxing, the Chinese Foreign Ministers, told reporters: "I am very sad. A young Chinese compatriot and three foreign citizens have sacrificed their lives together.
"A Chinese soldier, a son of the Chinese people, has given up his life for the peace in the Middle East. We should remember this day and not allow his blood to be shed in vain."
In New York, Chinese diplomats were already circulating the draft of a Security Council statement condemning the Israeli action.
The three other peacekeepers killed were reported to be from Austria, Canada and Finland, although the governments of those countries said that they were still waiting official confirmation.
But Erkki Tuomioja, the Finnish Foreign Minister, nevertheless condemned the attack as truly tragic. "These so-called precision attacks seem to be mainly targeting everyone else except the Hezbollah," he said. "The longer this continues, the more likely it is that there will be more similar victims."