UN evidence heaps more blame on Israelis

Robert Fisk hears that shells fired on Qana were designed to cause maximum casualties and could hardly be fired inaccurately
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The Independent Online
Three days after the Israeli slaughter of at least 110 Lebanese refugees at the United Nations peace-keeping post in Qana, the Fijian soldiers whose headquarters were blasted apart by the Israeli guns have placed a small spray of coloured plastic flowers in the crater of a shell that killed 40 people. But less happy sentiments are being expressed among the UN troops as evidence is slowly amassed about what actually happened in the minutes last Thursday when the UN compound was turned into a replica of the Sarajevo market massacre.

The evidence includes UN witnesses who saw a pilot-less Israeli reconnaissance drone taking photographs over the compound as the slaughter went on. If this was of the type that transmits live television pictures - which the Israelis are known to possess - then the Israeli artillerymen must have known what they were shooting at within seconds. UN troops have also established that the three bearded Hizbollah men who fired the two Katyushas and four mortars whom the Israelis claim they were firing at 300 metres from the compound, were later identified by Fijian troops running into the UN compound for protection just before the bombardment. They may be among the dead.

UN technical personnel have also concluded that all 12 shells to hit the base were 155mm shells with M-732 proximity fuses which exploded each round seven metres above the ground, thus causing maximum casualties and what in military parlance is called "amputation wounds": in other words, they cut off arms, legs and heads. They were fired from new American M109A1 howitzers which need a forward artillery "spotter" - in this case presumably the drone - and which are almost impossible to fire inaccurately.

One UN official recalled an almost identical incident a month ago when 32 Israeli shells were fired at the site of a Katyusha launching 300 metres from a UN compound in another area.

"They didn't put a single round into the UN base. I know what they're saying now, but these Israeli soldiers are rewarded for being tough and aggressive and I simply cannot believe that this was an accident," one officer said. Of all UN personnel I spoke to privately yesterday, only one said that he could not bring himself to think that the attack was deliberate.

Records also show that despite Israel's claim that it did not know that refugees were sheltering under the UN's protection, a senior member of the UN's civil staff in southern Lebanon told an Israeli general at 1.15pm on Tuesday - 49 hours before the massacre - that 5,000 refugees were being protected and that the civilians were sheltering in every UN position, including Qana. The remarks were made after Israeli artillery rounds repeatedly landed close to UN supply convoys taking blankets and food to civilians at the UN posts.

It has also emerged that in the two minutes after the Katyushas were fired from a cemetery to the north of the Fijian compound, another 260 civilians, inhabitants of Qana who had hitherto stayed in their homes, ran in panic through the gates of the post - along with the three Hizbollah men - bringing the total number of refugees to around 880. Fearing retaliation on the area - though not, of course, on their compound - Fijian soldiers began to pack as many refugees as they could into their bunkers, physically pushing women and children into the concrete interiors until no more could be accommodated.

"We wanted women in first but mothers here have three or four children and they wouldn't go into the bunkers with three children and leave the fourth lost outside," a Fijian officer said yesterday. "They were hunting for children who had run off and were playing with friends. They were crying because they couldn't find them. Then the first Israeli shells came in." Another soldier described what happened next. "There were shrieks of agony and pain as the shell fragments cut off the legs and arms and heads of the refugees. They sounded like animals who had gone mad. We desperately tried to get UN operations to tell the Israelis to stop. But the Israelis didn't respond; they just sent us a `shell warning'- after the people were already being massacred. The UN pleaded with them to stop but they went on shelling for 12 minutes."

A third soldier, lying on the ground at a position outside the compound, saw the first Israeli 155mm round hit the battalion's water tower. "Then I heard terrible screams and shrieking. People started bursting from the compound gate, trying to run away, people without hands, people with blood spurting out of them. There was a woman without a hand making a terrible squealing noise and a man whose foot had been torn off running on the stump of his leg in panic leaving a stream of blood behind him. Then more shells came in and exploded mostly among the women and children. There were terrible screams and I heard the people shouting `Oh God! Oh God!' It was the voice of death."