Israeli bid to 'justify further tragedies'

Lebanon crisis: UN commander infuriated by claims that Hizbollah are still using UN bases as cover for rocket attacks

In an unprecedented exchange with the Israeli army, the UN commander in southern Lebanon yesterday accused his Israeli opposite number of trying to justify future Qana-style massacres by claiming that Hizbollah guerrillas are still using UN bases for cover to fire Katyusha rockets into Galilee.

General Stanislaw Wozniak, Polish commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), wrote in a letter to the Israeli military command that the Israeli assertion was "a transparent effort to justify further tragedies, should they occur, as a result of continuing random (Israeli) shelling of Unifil area of operations."

More than 120 refugees are now known to have been massacred at Qana when Israeli 155mm guns fired salvoes of shells among the 860 Lebanese civilians crowded inside the headquarters of the UN's Fijian battalion on Thursday. Bizarrely, the Israelis - accusing the same UN soldiers of allowing a Katyusha to be fired at Galilee from the same area - complained not about the Fijians but about the "New Guinea" battalion of the UN. There are no Unifil soldiers from New Guinea, which is 2,000 miles from Fiji.

In a claim which stunned UN personnel in southern Lebanon yesterday, Israel stated that UN peace-keepers were "irresponsible" in giving sanctuary to the refugees while not preventing Katyusha attacks launched from near their bases - an allegation which apparently prompted the suspicion that the Israelis wished Unifil to expel the 5,000 refugees taking sanctuary in UN posts and thus fulfil Israel's orders to them to leave their homes.

"Unifil has a moral and legal obligation to offer humanitarian assistance to the people living in its area under incredibly difficult circumstances," General Wozniak retorted. "Irresponsibility is not trying to protect these innocent non- combatants, but firing at them."

Timur Goksel, Unifil's spokesman, acknowledged that General Wozniak had responded to Israel's claims, adding that "the armed elements (Hizbollah) are local people who make use of their intimate knowledge of the terrain and who move in small, mobile teams. They make sure that they are not seen from UN posts. At times there is nobody around when the rockets are fired because of the use of timers." Taking up this point, General Wozniak wrote to the Israelis that "my understanding is that it is this phenomenon and not Unifil's sheltering of innocent civilians which has brought your operations against Lebanon to its 13th day."

The Israelis claim they were firing at the site of a Katyusha rocket launch 350m from the Qana UN compound when they killed the refugees. On Sunday General Frank Van Kappen, special representative of Boutros Boutros- Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, said he had an appointment to question the Israeli Chief of Staff, General Amnon Lifkin Shahak, about the massacre.

Yesterday it transpired he had been too busy to discuss the slaughter with the UN officer and had delegated the task to his second-in-command.

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