UN storm as Israel faces indictment

Britain backs massacre report
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The Independent Online
A political storm erupted at the United Nations last night after a report which says the Israeli shelling of Lebanese civilians was not an accident went to the UN Security Council. Britain came abruptly to the defence of the UN as it was subjected to fierce criticism from Israel and the United States.

Israeli shells killed more than 100 people when they hit the Qana compound in southern Lebanon on 18 April. The crux of the UN report is that the pattern of impact left by the shells combined with other evidence made it "unlikely" that the shelling of the compound was the result of technical or procedural errors. The report was prepared for the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, by two military advisors.

Its publication, on Mr Boutros-Ghali's orders, triggered a diplomatic tempest. Israel continued to dismiss its principle conclusions as "absurd" and the US showered the UN with telephone calls of protest. "I understand that four-letter words were used," remarked a senior diplomat in New York.

There was unexpected support for the UN from Britain, which up until the report's publication had appeared sympathetic to American desires to see it stifled. Sir John Weston, the British ambassador in New York, said: "This is a very disturbing report that needs to be taken seriously and we hope that Israel will respond fully to it". A clear rift had opened yesterday between the US and many European delegations.

Puncturing the normally staid calm of UN headquarters, the secretary- general's spokeswoman, Sylvana Foa, lashed out at the report's critics. "Let's be real clear. The report fulfilled an essential obligation of this organisation to investigate an incident in which 100 people were killed inside a UN base."

Asked why she had spoken out so forcefully, Ms Foa said she had been "provoked for the last 24 hours. I am sick of all the UN-bashing. I think the report is extremely balanced and extremely objective."

The report provoked a series of telephone calls to the office of Mr Boutros- Ghali from the US mission in New York. Senior sources said some of these were "acrimonious". It was one such that was said to have degenerated to an exchange of curses.

Israel, meanwhile, continued to express its indignation yesterday. Speaking during a visit to Washington, the Israeli Foreign Minister, Ehud Barak, sought to discredit the report. "I don't know if this is exactly what the secretary-general meant but the whole idea is absurd," he said.

"They were insinuating guilt without being able to prove it," said Uri Dromi an Israeli spokesman. "The fact that they couldn't establish categorically that it was intentional should have led them to present a factual report without laying the blame on our doorstep."

Israel yesterday showed video material from a pilotless drone flying in the vicinity of the camp. According to Mr Dromi, it was three miles from the camp on a different mission when the shells rained down.

"There was no way in which it could see the camp, especially on a cloudy day," he said. "The shelling took place from six minutes past two to 13 minutes past two. It was only at 17 minutes past two that it was ordered to fly towards Qana. At 21 minutes past two it established contact with the camp for the first time, but the pictures were sketchy because of the cloud cover. It relayed pictures of the camp again at 2.30pm. The Israeli video was shown to the UN in New York ... before they published their findings."

Mr Dromi reiterated Israel's insistence that its soldiers did not know they were shooting at the UN camp, or that Lebanese refugees were sheltering there. "We thought we were shooting hundreds of yards away," he said. "It was because of faulty coordinates. Then some of the shells overshot...

"We believed at the time that we were shooting back as precisely as we could at Katyusha launchers and mortars that were endangering our forces. We had no intention of hitting the UN camp. We had no knowledge that there were civilians there."

In a television interview on Tuesday, the Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, said Israel did not have the slightest idea that there were refugees in the UN base. "I think it was a scandal," he added, "that they were permitted into the camp without [the UN] letting us know about it."

The Security Council meeting broke up with no agreement yesterday and will resume this morning to consider a resolution drafted by Lebanon which criticises Israel and demands compensation. "I think it will be ugly," said a senior diplomat.

Edited text of report, page 9

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