Hizbollah 'did not use civilians as cover'

In its strongest condemnation of Israel since last summer's war, Human Rights Watch said yesterday that most Lebanese civilian casualties were caused by "indiscriminate Israeli air strikes".

The international human rights organisation said there was no basis to the Israeli claim that civilian casualties resulted from Hizbollah guerrillas using civilians for cover. Israel has said that it attacked civilian areas because Hizbollah set up rocket launchers in villages and towns. More than 1,000 Lebanese were killed in the 34-day conflict, which began after Hizbollah staged a cross-border raid, killing three Israeli soldiers and capturing two others.

Israeli aircraft targeted Lebanese infrastructure, including bridges and Beirut airport, and heavily damaged a district of Beirut known as a Hizbollah stronghold, as well as attacking Hizbollah centres in villages near the border. Hizbollah fired nearly 4,000 rockets at northern Israel, killing 119 soldiers. In the fighting, 40 Israeli civilians were killed.

Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch executive director, said there were only "rare" cases of Hizbollah operating in civilian villages.

"To the contrary, once the war started, most Hizbollah military officials and even many political officials left the villages," he said. "Most Hizbollah military activity was conducted from prepared positions outside Lebanese villages in the hills and valleys around."

The Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, rejected the findings. "Hizbollah adopted a deliberate strategy of shielding itself behind the civilian population and turning the civilians in Lebanon into a human shield," he said.

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