UN begged Israelis to halt Qana massacre

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The Independent Online
As foreign ministers of the United States, Russia, France, Italy and Iran arrived in Damascus last night to try to halt the butchery in Lebanon, Israel found itself in even deeper embarrassment over its slaughter on Thursday of more than 100 refugees. The United Nations stated that it had appealed in vain for Israeli guns to stop firing on 600 civilians crowded into the UN's Fijian battalion headquarters in Qana.

Two UN spokesmen said Israeli shelling continued for minutes after their officers pleaded with the Israelis to halt their artillery attack. The shells also wounded more than a hundred men, women and children. The UN had asked the Israelis several times to stop firing at Qana after civilians had been hit, "but in vain", said Timur Goksel, special adviser to the UN's force commander.

General Amnon Lipkin Shahak, the Israeli chief of staff, has claimed that his army issued a "shell warning" to the Fijian compound, but the UN denies this. UN radio traffic monitored by the Independent on Sunday in a convoy only a few miles from Qana before the bombardment confirms the absence of a warning.

According to Swedish Captain Mikael Lindval, the UN spokesman in southern Lebanon, the Israeli warning came minutes after the attack on the headquarters began. "The first thing anyone heard was the Fijian on radio channel 6 saying they were being shelled," Capt Lindval said last night. "The guy at Naqqoura [UN operations office] immediately pressed the speed dial button on the telephone to Israeli liaison and told the woman he got there 'You are shelling Fijian headquarters - there are civilians in it. Please stop it.'

"More minutes passed and the IDF [Israel Defence Force] called back and said there was a shell warning on Qana. So the shell warning came after we called them and asked them to stop it."

The Israeli bombardment of the 600 refugees - who were sitting in the open UN compound without protection - continued for at least seven minutes. Capt Lindval said the varying death tolls - 105 were killed, although the official count originally listed only 75 - occurred because although 75 body bags were originally sent to hospitals in Sidon, "we put several babies and children in quite a few of the bags, and many body parts in them". Of 26 Israeli 155mm artillery rounds, up to 15 exploded among the refugees, tearing them to pieces. The remainder fell round the perimeter of the UN compound.

Despite the Qana massacre - and repeated reports of a possible ceasefire amid growing international concern - Israel continued to target Lebanese civilians yesterday, using two missile boats to shell civilian traffic on the coastal highway south of Beirut. One of their shells hit a car, gravely wounding an off-duty policeman. Doctors said last night he was not expected to live. In southern Lebanon, Israeli jets staged 12 more air raids as Hizbollah guerrillas fired another 50 Katyusha rockets into Israel. The air attacks delayed a convoy of humanitarian supplies in which Capt Lindval was travelling. "People out there need our help, but we can't get there, and no one can," he said.

Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, arrived in Damascus yesterday afternoon. Last night he was due to meet the foreign ministers of Russia, France and Italy in an attempt to prevent Shimon Peres' now hopeless offensive into Lebanon spinning out of control. The Israeli Prime Minister desperately wants a ceasefire to bring his own military adventure to an end; whether the Arabs will oblige him remains to be seen.

Inside Story, pages 16, 17

Leading article, page 20