Dead were civilians, Israeli army admits

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The Independent Online

The Israeli army admitted last night for the first time that at least of the seven of the people killed in last Wednesday's demonstration here were unarmed civilians.

Brigadier-General Shmuel Zakai, commander of the Rafah "Operation Rainbow", said in Tel Aviv that one of those killed in the protest had been identified as a "terrorist" although military sources said later that they could not say whether he was armed at the time.

The running dispute between the army and human rights groups, who have been pressing for an independent inquiry into the deaths of the demonstrators, is complicated by the fact that the army say eight people were killed.

Officials at Rafah's main hospital have said 10 people were killed in a protest outside the Tel Sultan neighbourhood where an army siege was lifted yesterday.

But the new admission contradicts early claims by government sources that as many as five of those killed were armed militants. It came as General Zakai also said the whole operation had claimed the lives of 41 militants and 12 civilians. Palestinian human rights groups, who put the total at more than 60 over the past fortnight, claim that the proportion of civilians is significantly higher.

General Zakai's briefing came after the Israelis lifted their siege on the Tel Sultan neighbourhood, and thousands joined the funeral procession for 16 Palestinians killed during the seven-day incursion there.

General Zakai also said that 56 homes had been destroyed or damaged during the operation. The figure was an increase on previous military estimates of damage but still falls short of a figure of 67 over the past eight days estimated by the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.

The general indicated that in some cases forces had to bulldoze their way through houses to avoid the risk of explosive devices on the roads.

Although the army says its operation in Rafah has been scaled down, General Zakai gave no indication that it was over. Forces were said to be still searching in the Kishta neighbourhood for tunnels. The army said it had found three during the operation.

While pledging an inquiry into the fatal shooting of a teenage brother and sister, military sources claim that two other teenagers had been shot dead by Palestinian militants as they tried to leave a building surrounded by the army.

On the demonstration, the general said that the tank commander, who he continued to insist had fired at the wall of a deserted building and not at the protesters, appeared not to have seen the demonstration. Military sources said last night that armed Palestinians had moved in and out of the demonstration.

* Two television channels in Israel reported last night that the Attorney General Menachem Mazuz had decided to lift the threat of prosecution hanging over Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, because of his part in the "Greek island" property scandal. The Justice Ministry, however, said that no decision had yet been taken.