'It is unlikely that errors led to shelling'

Massacre at Qana: UN report shows a failure on the part of Israel to explain a catalogue of inconsistencies in its evidence

Boutros Boutros-Ghali made clear yesterday that though it is not impossible, Israel's claim that its shelling of a United Nations camp in south Lebanon last month was the result of error seems barely credible.

That the Secretary-General of the UN should have reached such a view is barely surprising, given the conclusions reached by the military officer that investigated the attack on his behalf.

In the aftermath of the attack, General Frank Van Kappen spent several days in the area and in Israel interviewing witnesses and Israeli force commanders to find out exactly what happened at the Qana camp on 18 April.

His findings, detailed in the much-vaunted report released at the UN in New York last night, are a catalogue of inconsistencies between what the Israelis told him and what he found at the site.

The Israeli bombardment occurred shortly after 2pm, soon after Israeli forces had come under fire from two mortar sites manned by Hizbollah guerrillas close to the UN camp, into which some 800 Lebanese civilians had fled to take cover from Israeli retaliation. Both sites were allegedly targeted by an Israeli artillery placement equipped with 155 millimetre guns.

The principle claims of Israel on which grave doubt is cast by General Van Kappen were as follows: that the Israeli artillery personnel had received erroneous mapping information and that consequently some of the shells aimed at one of the mortar sites, the first target, overshot and travelled too far north and into the UN camp; that different types of shells - some that explode on impact and others, proximity fuse shells, designed to detonate just above ground (usually used to kill maximum numbers of people) had been fired in random order and that more impact shells than the more deadly proximity shells had been used; and that no aircraft had been in the air at the time.

A detailed study of the impact craters of the explosions make this explanation hard to accept, the report suggests. First of all, no shells hit the second of the targets that Israel said its guns had hit. Second, the evidence suggest that there was nothing random about the way impact shells and proximity shells were used in firing at the camp and that more of the latter had in fact been fired.

Perhaps the most damning claims, however, are made by several witnesses at the scene that "there had been during the shelling a perceptible shift in the weight of the fire from an area south-west of the compound [the mortar site] to the compound itself". This suggests intentional targeting of the UN facility by the Israeli artillery.

In his report, General Van Kappen, who is Dutch, is blunt about the inconsistent statements from Israel regarding the presence of aircraft. He notes that a video taken at the scene - and obtained earlier this week by the Independent - shows the presence of an RPV (Remote Piloted Vehicle, or "drone") reconnaissance aircraft in the Qana vicinity at the time of the shelling. The general says that in addition, there were two Israeli helicopters in the area.

Underscoring that he had been told while on his mission to Israel that there had been no aircraft over Qana, he states in his report: "Contrary to repeated denials, two Israeli helicopters and a remotely piloted vehicle were present in the Qana area at the time of the shelling".

In an addendum to the report penned by the general yesterday, he reports that the Israeli commander of the artillery, General Dan Harel, told him at UN headquarters this week that the RPV had been in the general area on a different mission and had only been directed to Qana itself after the damage had been inflicted on the camp. General Harel had been unable to say clearly whether the helicopters had overflown Qana during the bombardment or not.

In his additional letter, General Van Kappen states in summary that even this week General Dan Harel had only been able to offer an explanation of one of General Van Kappen's five principle findings that cast doubt on the claim that errors, rather than deliberate targeting, were behind the destruction of the camp. That concerned the way in which his artillery had been provided, by Israel's Northern Command, with faulty mapping information. (According to the Israelis, the position of the UN camp was marked by a pin in the Northern Command's map that was the equivalent of 100 metres too far to the north).

As to the use of impact and proximity fuse shells, General Van Kappen states: "The fuse- mix ration had been the reverse of what I was told, namely two thirds proximity fuses and one third impact fuses rather than the other way around".

His letter concludes: "As stated in my report, it is unlikely that gross technical and/or procedural errors led to the shelling of the United Nations compound. However, it cannot be ruled out completely".

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