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What price the truth of Awla's death?

It all seemed clear-cut when a baby girl died in what was assumed to be Israeli shellfire, writes Robert Fisk in Kafra, Lebanon. But was it?
Awla Zein is dead - but what price the truth of how she met her end? Her tiny grave lies in the cemetery, her father so badly wounded that no one dares tell him his 14-month-old daughter is dead. On the floor of the family's two-storey home at Kafra - a dirt-poor south Lebanon village on the very edge of Israel's occupation zone - splashes of Awla's blood can still be seen. Shrapnel marks from the explosion which killed her are slashed into the ceiling and the doors of a steel clothes cupboard. "Fourteen-month-old baby girl among the victims of Israeli bombardment," one of the Beirut papers proclaimed after Awla Zein died of her wounds a week ago.

It seemed an open and shut case. Israeli artillery regularly kills civilians in southern Lebanon - a middle-aged man was cut down by a shell the same day and more than 100 civilians, including women and children, were slaughtered in a 1993 Israeli bombardment after Hizbollah gunmen killed eight Israeli occupation troops.

But the UN, whose Nepalese peace-keepers patrol Kafra, and even some Lebanese journalists, seemed less certain about the cause of Awla Zein's death. For once, they were more circumspect about blaming the Israelis - who denied they had fired shells at the Zein household. UN soldiers claimed they heard no shellfire, although they agreed they saw Awla's uncle Ibrahim driving her and his brother to Tibnin hospital on 3 May.

Three houses away, at 8.30pm, Sabah Ibadi was watching the news on Lebanese television when she says she heard three or four shells exploding. "There are shells falling around our houses almost every day - when the resistance attack the Israelis, they shoot back at us. Then I heard and ran out of the house and saw Awla's mother Hesn in tears and I knew something had happened. When I saw the little girl, I said to myself, 'She hasn't got a chance,' because she was hit in the stomach. There was blood everywhere. Her father Hassan was hit in the leg."

Awla was the Zeins' only child, a plump baby whose photograph is now hidden from her hysterical mother. Ibrahim and his wife and two children lived in the same house. "The rocket was fired from that Israeli position on the hill," he said, pointing to one of five artillery bases in this sector of southern Lebanon. "Hassan wanted to watch the television news and was putting Awla to sleep on the family bed below the clothes cupboard when the Israelis fired a rocket at the house." Ibrahim Zein, the walls of whose home are decorated with a Hizbollah calendar and portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini and the assassinated leader of the Hizbollah, Sayed Abbas Moussawi, has already repaired the window through which he says the rocket entered the room.

Oddly, however, the glass in the window has not been smashed, save for a tiny hole through which a piece of metal apparently penetrated. And although Ibrahim Zein says the rocket exploded on the window frame and ricocheted into the bedroom, the shrapnel marks suggest that the detonation took place on the floor of the room, in the far corner below the bed. The remains of the Israeli missile - if that is what it was - had been given, Ibrahim Zein said, to the Lebanese army and to the Council of Southern Lebanon, which pays out compensation to Lebanese families who lose a relative to Israeli gunfire.

What troubles the Nepalese UN troops, however, is that no gunfire preceded what one of them called a "muffled explosion" in the Zein household. Ibrahim Zein drove Awla and her father through their checkpoint as Hesn came screaming down the road, pleading for help in Arabic - which the UN soldiers did not understand. So a rather different account of Awla's death began to go the rounds in Kafra. On the floor of Hassan's bedroom, so the story went, there was some kind of firearm, a rocket or an old grenade. Awla had wandered into the bedroom, found the grenade and pulled the pin. Hassan had tried to shield her from the blast but the grenade exploded, tearing off part of his leg and much of Awla's stomach.

"The Lebanese army looked at the shrapnel and said it was a grenade or some small explosive," a local Lebanese said. "But the family have got recognition that the Israelis killed Awla with a rocket. That means the Council of Southern Lebanon will give them $14,000 (£8,860) in compensation. That's a lot of money round here." Needless to say, Awla has been added to the official list of Lebanese civilians killed by Israel. As usual in southern Lebanon, it seems, the price of truth is high.