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Negotiations preceded convoy attack

An attack on a convoy of civilians was one of the least understood and most tragic chapters of the 33-day war between Hezbollah and Israel.
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Darkness had descended on the Bekaa Valley when the long convoy of cars snaked up a gentle slope toward Kefraya. In better times, the little town was celebrated for its wine. But to the Lebanese fleeing the war that night, it was a way station on the road to safety.

Or so they thought.

A dry boom rang out without warning shortly before 10 p.m., and the second car in the convoy exploded in flames, witnesses recounted. In the blackness, no one understood at first. People alighted from their cars to see what was the matter. The buzz of an Israeli drone was heard overhead -- some recalled hearing two drones -- and the awful realization settled over the travelers that they were under attack.

"I could never have imagined that there could be an attack on this convoy of 3,000 civilians, men, women and children," said Karamallah Daher, who was driving to Beirut that night with his 80-year-old mother, Neifeh.

But the attack was underway, just at the entrance to this little community 40 miles southwest of Beirut. Before it was over about 15 minutes later, a half-dozen missiles had been fired and seven people were killed, including a retreating Lebanese soldier, a Red Cross volunteer and five other civilians, and 36 people had been wounded, according to Red Cross and government officials.

The attack on the convoy, during the height of fighting on Aug. 11, was one of the least understood and most tragic chapters of the 33-day war between Hezbollah and Israel. For reasons still under dispute, a column of hundreds of cars carrying Lebanese troops and panic-stricken civilians from the border town of Marjayoun came under a sustained Israeli missile attack more than 30 miles north of the battle zone along the Lebanese-Israeli frontier.

"Really, it's a mystery," said Marjayoun's mayor, Fuad Hamra, who was in the convoy but came out unharmed. "Why the Israelis did it, really? I don't know."

Request for safe passage
The Israeli military issued a statement early the next morning saying the column was attacked because of suspicions -- which the military later acknowledged were baseless -- that the cars were smuggling arms for Hezbollah fighters. In the same statement, the military said it had received a request for safe passage for the convoy from the United Nations but that it had been turned down.

Milos Stugar, spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, said that the request was granted. His statement was confirmed Wednesday by Gen. Alain Pelligrini, the UNIFIL commander, who said: "We had a green light."

In a written response to questions from The Washington Post, the Israeli military put responsibility for the killings on UNIFIL, saying U.N. officials ignored Israeli orders to prevent the column from moving.

The military, formally called the Israel Defense Forces, "suspected that the vehicles were either returning from a weapons delivery to Hezbollah terrorists in the south or were fleeing from IDF forces with their weapons," the statement added. It did not address the questions of what led the Israeli military to believe the cars were carrying weapons or how, if a request for safe passage had come from the United Nations, the Israeli military could believe it was seeing a Hezbollah convoy.

Facing Israeli forces
Israeli forces entered Marjayoun without opposition before dawn on Aug. 10, eager to demonstrate they controlled a swath of Lebanese land. It was familiar. The town, a Christian community six miles north of the Galilee panhandle, was headquarters for the Israeli-sponsored South Lebanon Army during Israel's 18-year occupation of the border zone that ended six years ago.

About 9 a.m., an Israeli officer appeared at the Marjayoun garrison that housed a 350-man mixed force of Lebanese army and Internal Security Forces personnel, under the command of Brig. Gen. Adnan Daoud. Interior Minister Ahmed Fatfat said Daoud called him immediately on a cellphone and asked whether he should resist. The two decided to let the Israeli officer in, Fatfat said.

After a four-hour tour of the base, during which he asked whether any Hezbollah combatants were present, the Israeli officer advised Daoud to post a white flag at the entrance, then departed. Daoud was later placed under house arrest on suspicion of treason because of a videotape showing him serving tea to the Israeli officer, but he was released a week later and assigned to resume his post.

Later that day, according to Fatfat and witnesses in Marjayoun, another Israeli unit showed up and started shooting at the base, leading Daoud to call Fatfat again for guidance. Without resistance, the second group of Israeli soldiers pushed their way into the base, disarmed the troops and locked Daoud in a room, saying they were occupying the facility.

A frantic round of contacts involving Fatfat, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey D. Feltman and the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv led to assurances from the Israeli Defense Ministry that the soldiers had no orders to occupy the base, Fatfat said. The immediate crisis subsided, he said, but he and Daoud at 7 that evening began discussing when and how the garrison should withdraw from Marjayoun.

Working through UNIFIL, the Lebanese government asked for and received authorization from the Israeli military for the unit to leave for Beirut under a UNIFIL escort, according to Fatfat and a UNIFIL official who declined to be named. At 5 the next morning, they said, UNIFIL headquarters at Naqourah in southern Lebanon telephoned the authorization for a 3 p.m. departure to Gen. Abdul-Rahman al-Shehaiti, an aide to Gen. Georges Khoury, the head of Lebanese military intelligence.

‘A lot of confusion’
Two gleaming white UNIFIL armored personnel carriers with Indian troops showed up in Marjayoun that morning, ready to lead the way. "We had a total agreement that they will go out through the Bekaa [Valley] and on to Beirut," Fatfat said.

The authorization specified the route the convoy was to follow, according to Fatfat and the UNIFIL official. But Marjayoun officials discovered a road on the agreed route had been bombed and needed to be repaired before the column could pass, leading to a long delay. By the time repairs were made, the UNIFIL unit said it was too late to begin and was reluctant to accompany the column, Fatfat said.

Another round of consultations began, according to Fatfat and others, and just before 4 p.m., the decision was made to depart. "Let's go," Daoud shouted.

By that time, Mayor Hamra recalled, hundreds of civilian cars had lined up on Marjayoun's main street, ready to follow Daoud and his men out of the war zone. They had been assured earlier that the security forces would stay put to help guarantee Marjayoun's safety, although Israeli radio broadcasts, beamed in Arabic into Lebanon, urged people to stay in their homes. The families of Marjayoun judged that if Daoud and his men were evacuating under a U.N. escort, then that was a signal to get out. "There was a lot of confusion when people saw the U.N. show up," Hamra said.

Some townspeople feared for their lives under Israeli occupation, particularly since Israeli artillery was shelling the nearby Hezbollah stronghold of Khiam. Others were reluctant to be seen cooperating with Israelis, a stigma that marks Marjayoun because of its role during the earlier occupation. Still others feared an Israeli attack; witnesses said Hezbollah fighters had sneaked into town and fired rockets on Israel from behind the town hospital.

So when the convoy pulled out of Marjayoun -- with Israeli artillery shells crashing down a few hundred yards away -- it stretched the entire length of Marjayoun's main street. Daher, a local reporter for the Reuters news agency, said he estimated 1,300 Jeeps and cars, led by Daoud's black Jeep Cherokee, carried about 3,000 people for what was to be a drive north up the Bekaa to Beirut.

Despite the repairs, the roads along the route were heavily pocked by Israel's bombing campaign, holding the convoy to a snail's pace. "To get 12 miles, it took us four hours," Hamra said. Residents from villages the cars passed through further slowed progress by coming out to offer water and snacks. Some cars stopped. Others honked and tried to proceed. Tempers flared, and the convoy broke up into sections.

‘Trying to find their way’
The U.N. armored personnel carriers pulled up near Hasbaya, about five miles north of the departure point, because that was the end of their authorized area of operations. But under Daoud's leadership, the convoy inched on, increasingly fractured as cars sought to work around bombed-out bridges, cratered roads and rubble-strewn village lanes.

"People were in every direction, trying to find their way," said Hamra, 58, an engineer who recently retired after a career in the Persian Gulf.

By the time the first cars approached Kefraya, the convoy stretched for miles in the darkness and had broken up into several groups, according to a number of participants. When the first missile streaked in, what had become a disorganized string of cars turned into a madhouse.

Fawaz Deeba, who runs a grocery store in Marjayoun, said he quickly exited his car when the first explosion occurred. "I stop. I open the door. I hear the noise, then a silence. Then came another bomb," he said.

The second missile, about three minutes after the first, sliced into a car in the middle of the convoy, witnesses said, and by that time everybody understood what was going on. Drivers began to panic as several more missiles crashed in. Some drivers tried to speed away but bumped into their neighbors. Others hit trees. People jumped out of their cars and pushed their children into the ditch, holding their hands over their heads.

"It was total chaos," recalled Daher. "Women were weeping. It was awful. There were cars running into each other. They were crashing into trees. It was crazy."

‘I want my dad’
Daher said Elie Salameh, a well-known Marjayoun resident, got out of his car to ask a neighbor for gasoline when the second missile landed, ripping his head, shoulders and chest to shreds. Salameh's 16-year-old daughter, Sally, jumped out and ran toward Daher, he recalled, crying, "I want my dad. I want my dad."

Daoud, meanwhile, was on the ground trying frantically to call Beirut for help. He had one cellphone in each hand, pressing numbers as fast as he could, witnesses said, but the network wouldn't connect.

Daher tried to carry his mother to a nearby field for safety, he said, but she could not bear the pain in her arthritic legs. So he put her back in the passenger seat and waited with her for the attack to end. "We just sat there, not looking at death, but living it," he recalled, sobbing at the memory.

After about seven missiles had landed, the explosions stopped. Silence returned to the Bekaa Valley. After only seconds of peace, it was shattered by cars racing with the wounded toward a hospital at Dib Jenine, about five miles back down the road.

Correspondent Doug Struck in Jerusalem contributed to this report.