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Israel expresses ‘deep regret’ after U.N. strike

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday expressed “deep regret” after an Israeli bomb destroyed a U.N. observer post on the border in southern Lebanon, killing four observers.
U.N. peacekeepers from India carry the body of one of the U.N. observers who was killed in Israel's airstrike in southern Lebanon on Tuesday.
U.N. peacekeepers from India carry the body of one of the U.N. observers who was killed in Israel's airstrike in southern Lebanon on Tuesday.Rabih Daher / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israel’s prime minister expressed “deep regret” Wednesday over the killings of four U.N. observers in an airstrike and dismay over U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s accusation the bombing was “apparently deliberate.”

U.N. observers in southern Lebanon called the Israeli military 10 times in a six-hour period to ask it to halt its nearby bombing before their observation post was hit, according to details of a preliminary U.N. report on the incident released to The Associated Press on Wednesday.

During each phone call, an Israeli official promised to halt the bombing, according to a U.N. official who had seen the preliminary report. The U.N. observers said the area within half a mile of the post was hit with precision munitions, including 17 bombs and 12 artillery shells, four of which directly hit the post Tuesday, the report said.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Annan in a phone call Wednesday that the U.N. post was hit inadvertently.

Olmert pledges ‘thorough investigation’
“The prime minister expressed Israel’s deep regret over the mistaken killing of four U.N. peacekeepers,” Olmert said in a statement released by his office. “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.”

White House press secretary Tony Snow said called the killing of the observers a “horrible thing,” but said Israel has acted appropriately by saying it will investigate.

“They’ll be completely transparent in the way they conduct the investigation,” Snow said. “And I think that’s the appropriate way to proceed.”

China demanded that Israel apologize for the attack, which killed a Chinese U.N. observer along with observers from Austria, Canada and Finland.

“We are deeply shocked by this incident and strongly condemn it,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said on the ministry Web site.

His statement said Israel’s ambassador to Beijing was summoned Wednesday morning and asked to convey a request that Israel issue an apology to China and the victims’ families.

“These so-called precision attacks seem to be mainly targeting everyone else except the Hezbollah,” said Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, who added that the attack would increase pressure for a cease-fire.

Austria scores Tel Aviv
Austria’s foreign minister, Ursula Plassnik, told her Israeli counterpart by telephone that the bombing was unacceptable and urged Israel to stop its attack on the area, according to a ministry statement.

The European Union joined China and other nations in demanding an Israeli investigation of the attack.

Olmert expressed dismay over Annan’s initial comments in a written statement that the airstrike was “apparently deliberate.”

“It’s inconceivable for the U.N. to define an error as an apparently deliberate action,” Olmert said.

Annan said 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 U.N. positions would be spared Israeli fire.”

Furthermore, he said, Gen. Alain Pelligrini, the U.N. force commander in south Lebanon, had been in repeated contact with Israeli officers Tuesday “stressing the need to protect that particular U.N. position from attack.”

Six phone calls
Lt. Col. John Molloy, the senior Irish officer in the U.N. observer force in south Lebanon, reported making six telephone calls to his Israeli counterparts in the hours before the deadly strike on the border outpost, said Suzanne Coogan, spokeswoman for Irish Defense Minister Willie O’Dea. She said all six calls specifically identified the U.N. post that was ultimately destroyed.

“He warned the Israelis that they were shelling in very close proximity to the post, and his warnings were very specific, explicit, detailed and stark. Obviously those warnings went unheeded,” Coogan said.

U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown and Jane Lute, assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, also made several calls to Israel’s mission to the U.N. “reiterating these protests and calling for an abatement of the shelling,” Lute said.

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.

12 U.N. workers killed to date
As a result of these attacks, 12 U.N. personnel have been killed or injured, U.N. officials said.

Tuesday’s bomb hit the building and shelter of the observer post in Khiam near the eastern end of the border with Israel, said Milos Struger, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon known as UNIFIL. The four observers were in a bunker that collapsed in the bombing, a U.N. official said.

Israeli forces kept firing as rescue workers tried to clear the rubble, Struger 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, ending 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.