Israelis' outlawed weapon kills again

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Old Ahmed Sweidan had walked to collect his animal feed from the field on the edge of his village at dawn every morning for a month. Approaching 70, the Shia Muslim farmer would kneel in the stubble to pray, his green plastic water-jug - for ritual ablution - beside him, a stone in front to rest his head on as he bowed towards Mecca.

Living more than a mile inside Israel's occupation zone, he had no reason to fear for his life. Five of his immediate family members were serving in Israel's own proxy Lebanese militia, the "South Lebanon Army" (SLA). One of his sons was a retired policeman.

But on Saturday morning, as he walked into the field to pray, an Israeli Merkava tank a mile-and-a-half away on the opposite hill fired seven shells at him, each round packed with thousands of tiny steel "flechette" arrows - a weapon banned under international law.

Ahmed Sweidan was torn to pieces. Yesterday, his dark, dried blood still stained the cornfield, his green plastic water-jug on its side in the stubble. And all across the field where he died lay hundreds of those tiny steel steel darts. I found dozens of them - an inch-and-a-half long, each with four fins, painted green and grey - lying in the piles of grain, embedded in solid rock, pinpricked into the two scarecrows that Ahmed Sweidan had erected to keep the birds from his animal feed. He had died the death of a thousand cuts.

A mistake, Israel said. Deeply regretted. But its tank crew were following "standing orders". If they saw suspicious movements in the hours of darkness, they were required to open fire. Cynically aware of Israel's frequent self-proclaimed "mistakes" - the Qana massacre, the attack on an ambulance- load of children and women, and the slaughter of a family of nine, all in April of last year, came to their mind - the 300 villagers of Aadchit el-Qsair do not believe a word of it.

"The old man had been coming to the hill every morning at the same time for a month," one of them said yesterday. "The Israelis had watched him every day. There are three Israeli gun positions overlooking the hill. Then they said they didn't know who he was. Anyway, have you ever heard of a guerrilla marching towards the enemy on the top of a hill? They use the wadis."

The Israeli Merkava tank which killed Ahmed Sweidan is equipped with thermal imagery - its crew must have been able to see the old man clearly in the pre-dawn light - and fired its shells over a period of seven minutes. I found fragments of seven 120mm rounds, one of them coded with the figure 128-20-91/77, most of which carried Hebrew markings and appeared to have been made in Israel.

Nor was this the first time flechettes have been used on civilians in Lebanon. More than four years ago, the same banned shells were fired into civilians in the village of Nabatea el-Faouqar, spraying the streets with the same tiny steel arrows and killing five men and women. On that occasion, Israel did not even apologise.

United Nations investigators were prowling the field outside Aadchit el-Qsair for evidence yesterday. The village of Aadchit lies inside both the Israeli-occupied zone and the UN's area of operations - Finnish troops patrol the village but Sweidan was already in his grave when they reached the scene of the killing on Saturday. Islamic law stipulates speedy burial, especially for bodies with serious wounds. Ahmed Sweidan's head was almost severed from his body.

Nor does the old man's death suggest there is much life left in the South Lebanon ceasefire which was supposed to have ended the bloodshed in the region after Israel's April 1996 bombardment. At least eight civilians have since been killed, seven this year.

On Sunday, Hizbollah men opened fire on an Israeli patrol inside Lebanon from a distance of only 30ft, killing Israeli Major Nadav Milo. In revenge, Israeli guns fired shells into the village of Jarjoua, wounding 10 civilians. One of them, seven-year old Ali Mouqallid, lost an eye. Israeli troops have meanwhile lost 12 men since the beginning of the year in escalating Hizbollah attacks; another 51 were wounded. All were hit in their occupation zone inside Lebanon.