Israel accused of targeting peacekeepers

The government of Israel has been given until Monday to respond to allegations in a secret United Nations report that its forces deliberately targeted a UN peace-keeping camp in southern Lebanon in a rocket attack last month.

The damning charge, which is certain to provoke renewed diplomatic censure of Israel for the attack which killed some 100 Lebanese civilians, is contained in a highly sensitive report compiled by the senior military advisor to the UN in New York, Brigadier General Frank van Kappen of the Netherlands.

General van Kappen was sent to southern Lebanon by the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in the immediate aftermath of the incident on 18 April, which destroyed the headquarters of a Fijian peace-keeping battalion and which was crammed at the time with refugees fleeing the fighting.

An oral synopsis of the general's report was relayed to members of the Security Council yesterday; it concludes that the Israeli rockets were deliberately aimed at the camp. "The report leans in the direction of intentional targeting of the camp," a well-placed source said last night.

Israeli officials were also summoned to the UN yesterday for a similar briefing on the report. It was agreed that the Israeli government would be given until Monday at the latest to respond to specific questions relating to General van Kappen's interpretation of relevant military data. There was scepticism, however, whether anything that Israel could offer as new evidence would alter the substance of General van Kappen's findings.

"I think we're trying to keep an open mind, but the fact is that the evidence keeps pointing in the same direction. I expect that when the final report emerges, the conclusions will be roughly the same," the source said.

Israel has said that the destruction of the camp was a mistake and that it was trying to hit a Hizbollah guerrilla placement only about 300 metres away from where Katyusha rockets had been fired into Israeli territory. The report suggests, however, that that explanation is incomplete if not untrue.

After the incident, the UN Security Council joined a worldwide chorus demanding a ceasefire in southern Lebanon which has since been established. However, bowing to pro-Israeli sentiment from the United States - and to the dismay of Arab delegations - it stopped short of outright condemnation of Israel.

Already last night, there were signs of American manoeuvering once more to limit the damage to Israel from the report. "That's not our understanding of what occurred," a spokesman from the State Department in Washington said.

The spokesman, Glyn Davies, tried also to deflect the intimation that Israel may have lied simply about the circumstances of the attack.

"I have no reason to believe that the Israelis are not telling the truth about the action from their point of view," he said.

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