UN told Israel 10 times that artillery attacks were near its observers

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The Independent Online

The UN warned Israel with at least 10 separate telephone calls during six hours that repeated aerial and artillery attacks had already landed at or dangerously close to their post in Khiam, south Lebanon, before the bombing that killed four of its observers there on Tuesday.

While expressing their "sorrow" Ehud Olmert, Israel's Prime Minister, and Tzipi Livni, the Foreign Minister, sharply criticised Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, for suggesting the attack on the Khiam post was "apparently deliberate."

But an internal report on the incident says there were more than 20 aerial and artillery attacks on the post on Tuesday, including four artillery rounds that directly hit the UN position an hour before the fatal guided bomb attack that killed the unarmed personnel taking refuge in a bomb shelter. The report says that, each time, the Israeli officer promised that the attacks would stop.

When they failed to do so, the UN Deputy Secretary General Mark Malloch Brown, contacted in New York, also telephoned the Israeli officers to urge a halt to the attacks. Lt-Col John Molloy, the Irish chief liaison officer between UN forces in south Lebanon and the Israelis, warned Israel six times that air strikes threatened the lives of the UN observers before the direct hit.

Ireland's Foreign Ministry said yesterday: "He warned: 'You have to address this problem or lives may be lost'." Dermot Ahern, Ireland's Foreign Minister, summoned Israel's ambassador to his office in protest and declared "Evidence we have would suggest this was either an incredible accident or else was in some way directly targeted."

Mr Annan's statement says that General Alain Pelligrini, the UN force commander in south Lebanon, had been in "repeated contact with Israeli officers ... stressing the need to protect that particular UN position" .

The UN released a picture of the position showing the letters "UN" emblazoned in large black letters on all sides, and officials said a light blue UN flag hung from a nearby flagpole was roughly 50ft high.

Jan Egeland, the UN's humanitarian co-ordinator, said "We did repeatedly in recent days say to Israel that this was an exposed position, that Hizbollah militants were 500m away shielding themselves near UN workers and civilians. That's why it is so inexplicable that what happened happened."

The internal reporting is understood to say there were 17 aerial bombing attacks on Tuesday within 1,000m of the UN position and another 12 artillery shells within 150m ­ of which four were direct hits on the position. The dead observers were a Finn, an Austrian, a Canadian and a Chinese.

The Chinese government strongly condemned the attack yesterday, and the Finnish European Union presidency declared: "Attacks against UN personnel are unacceptable."

Col Olivier Rafowicz an IDF spokesman, said an an investigation was under way but the bombing could have occurred as a result of failure of co-ordination, "problems of weapons or targeting, or technical problems. "

Ms Livni said she was "more than disappointed" by Mr Annan's statement, adding: "There will never be an army commander that will intentionally aim at civilians or UN soldiers." Asked whether the attack on the UN post might deter countries considering contributing to the multinational force that Israel wants to maintain a buffer zone on the Lebanese side of the border, Ms Livni said she did not think so because the governments would realise that the bombing was not deliberate. "There is a war," she said. "These things can happen."

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