Israel blames 'accident' on map errors

The Israeli army last night blamed faulty map-making for the Qana massacre, but categorically denied United Nations charges that it had deliberately targeted civilians.

The deputy chief of staff, Major General Matan Vilnai, said that because of a cartographical error long before the event, "the camp was about 150 metres from where we thought it was - that was why the artillery hit the camp".

He insisted that the Israeli army did not know there were civilian refugees in the camp. "We knew generally that civilians were using UN camps as shelters. We had photographed Qana camp two days earlier from the air. There was no sign of civilians. We never knew that a huge number of civilians were in the camp."

An aerial photograph shown to reporters confirmed this account. Only two or three figures could be seen walking between the corrugated iron roofs.

Maj Gen Vilnai confirmed that an Israeli drone was flying over the vicinity, but claimed it was on another mission and was not sending back television pictures of the Qana camp. It returned two hours after the shelling, he explained, and then it did relay shots of the damage.

The major general reiterated that it was not Israeli policy to shell UN camps. If they had meant to shell it, he said, the damage would have been much more devastating. Only a few of the 60 shells Israel now admits firing in the area "accidentally" hit the camp.

According to the findings of an Israeli investigation, the shelling began as a rescue mission when a commando unit seeking out Katyusha rocket-launching sites came under mortar fire in open ground.

"The mortars began falling 100 metres from the force, then 30 or 40 metres with shrapnel falling right beside our soldiers," General Vilnai said. "We acted in a matter of minutes to extricate the unit. In that time we had to understand what was going on, to relay orders and to stop the enemy fire."

He expressed the army's regret for the loss of life, but blamed Hizbollah for cynically exploiting civilians as an umbrella for firing at Israeli civilian and military targets.

"It was obvious to them that we were not going to hit the camp, so they used it as a base for launching Katyusha rockets and mortars," he said.

He added that Israel used its "hot-line" to the UN peace-keeping force to warn it that it was going to shell near Qana, but by the time they got through the shells were already raining down.

"They never told us," he maintained, "that the shells were falling inside the camp."