Barak cleared over botched assassination

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The Independent Online
THE LEADER of the Israeli Labour Party has been cleared of charges that he abandoned wounded soldiers when a dress rehearsal for a plan to assassinate President Saddam Hussein of Iraq went disastrously wrong and five of his men were killed in 1992.

Ehud Barak, who was army chief of staff at the time, has been dogged by the allegation that he did nothing to help the injured. Supporters of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, recently shouted Mr Barak down during a television programme with the cry: "Ehud ran away."

The Israeli State Comptroller has now produced a report, not yet fully released, which clears Mr Barak of leaving his men. He always maintained he oversaw the rescue operation and was right not to bandage the wounded himself when there were qualified medical personnel on hand.

Controversy in Israel has focused on the role of Mr Barak rather than the feasibility of the operation for which he was training his men. The accident happened at a training ground in the northern Negev, known as Tze'elim, in October 1992. Five soldiers of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit were killed when a missile was fired prematurely. Two officers were later court-martialled and reprimanded for the incident.

Three years after the disaster, soldiers who were at Tze'elim said that Mr Barak, who was observing the exercise, did nothing for the wounded and took off in his helicopter before they were evacuated.

Although evidence of misconduct was slight, it was used mercilessly by Mr Netanyahu's men. In a play on words, Tzachi Hanegbi, the Justice Minister, used the phrase "Ehud bara" - meaning "Ehud fled" - in a speech to the Knesset in 1997.

The Labour Party is now demanding an apology from Mr Hanegbi and other ministers. Mr Hanegbi says he has no intention of apologising. Likud, Mr Netanyahu's party, has, however, decided to drop slogans that hint at the affair.

The report comes at an opportune time for Mr Barak - before the Israeli elections on 17 May. He has recently begun to make a real political impact by pledging to have all Israeli soldiers home from Lebanon by the middle of next year if he is elected prime minister.

There is little debate in Israel on the merits of an operation to assassinate the Iraqi leader. Recent Israeli misadventures in Lebanon, where 11 naval commandos were killed, suggest that the Israeli army is over-confident in staging such raids.

Saddam Hussein is notoriously careful about his security. During the Gulf War, the US air force repeatedly tried to hit command centres where it believed he might be, but without success. Several attempts to assassinate him have failed. Israel reportedly considered launching another operation to kill him last year.

n Palestinian police in Gaza opened fire on protesters, killing two teenagers, after a military court sentenced to death a security agent, Raed Attar, 25, for his involvement in the killing of another agent. As he was led away from the court, Attar shouted: "There is no justice in Palestine."