Israelis destroy Lebanese haven More than 100 die in U.N. camp filled with refugees

Sharp international outcry

Peres agrees to halt bombing if Hezbollah stops attacks on Israel

April 19, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF Joshua Brilliant in Tel Aviv contributed to this article.

QANA, Lebanon -- Israeli artillery raked a United Nations peacekeepers camp filled with refugees yesterday, turning their haven into a deathtrap for at least 100, many of them women and children.

The carnage brought a sharp international outcry, and Israel said last night that it will agree to a U.S. call to stop bombarding Lebanon if Hezbollah guerrillas halt the shelling of northern Israel.

A dozen heavy shells crashed in midafternoon through the tin roofs of the refugee shelters at the U.N. camp. The blasts matted the ground with victims, and injured an estimated 100 civilians and four Fijian soldiers.

Soldiers and civilians piled broken bodies into cars to be rushed to hospitals, which soon echoed with wails of grief. Hospital workers rolled the living onto bloody stretchers and wrapped the dead in plastic sheets.

Israel said it was firing at a nearby launch site of Katyusha rockets. The Israeli chief of staff said yesterday that the shelling "was not a mistake in judgment," and Prime Minister Shimon Peres angrily blamed Islamic Hezbollah guerrillas for firing from a position close to the U.N. camp. "Lebanon is the victim of Hezbollah," he said.

The killings immediately increased international pressure on Israel to stop the eight-day bombardment of Lebanon and on Hezbollah to cease shelling northern Israel. President Clinton called last night for a cease-fire.

"If the other side will agree," Mr. Peres said late last night, "we will accept immediately."

Hezbollah replied that it wanted first the reinstatement of a 1993 pact barring Israel and the guerrillas from targeting civilians.

Hezbollah has said before that it would reject any restrictions on its fight to drive Israeli troops from Lebanon.

Mr. Clinton said he would promptly dispatch Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Israel, even as the Lebanese were counting their losses.

"All of my family is dead," sobbed Khalid Awada, 25. Streams of tears ran through the blood that smudged his face. "I have lost them all, lost them all."

"We were about to eat. They told us to go into the buildings. All of a sudden we saw bombs, and bodies, and I was outside shouting for my children," said Masan Yeshab, who did not know the fate of two of her children.

At the U.N. post, a blue-helmeted peacekeeper surveyed the smoldering ruins. He shook his head. "This is just beyond human expression," said Maj. Joseph Savua. "I want to pull back and go back to Fiji."

Posts of the the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) are scattered throughout South Lebanon, where soldiers from nine countries observe the conflict near the zone occupied by Israel.

After beginning its bombardment last week, Israel issued warnings to propel the population of South Lebanon northward for safety. More than 400,000 have fled, but about 7,000 took refuge in the UNIFIL posts, believing they would not be hit.

"We went there the day the shelling started. We thought the U.N. was safe," said Wissam Hijazi, 18, whose arm was shattered yesterday. "For eight days, nothing much happened. We had shelling around us, and just a little shrapnel.

"Then these bombs fell. When they hit, I saw my mother and grandmother collapse. I dragged them outside the building to the asphalt. I had to do it despite my wound. They would have burned up," he said. His mother lost a leg and an arm, and was moaning in a hospital bed after surgery.

About 850 refugees came to the Fijian camp outside Qana, a rural town southeast of the coastal city of Tyre. The refugees moved into a wooden lecture hall and a recreation hall made from two prefabricated buildings. They had mattresses, clothes and food inside.

The camp has several small bomb shelters, but not enough for 850 civilians, said Lt. Col. Wame Waqanivavalagi, the commander of the 500-man Fijian battalion. When shelling occurred nearby, most of the civilians went inside their flimsy shelters, he said.

Two shells set fire to the recreation hall, which quickly engulfed those too wounded or shocked to escape. Another hit the lecture hall, decimating civilians and splashing the interior with blood.

Israel launched its artillery bombardment from high hills in the "security zone" it occupies in South Lebanon. After more than 10 years in those positions, the Israeli gunners "are accurate," said Colonel Waqanivavalagi. Israel has been showing off to reporters the precision of its weaponry this week, asserting that it does not hit unintended civilian targets.

For that reason, the refugees felt they would not be struck by Israeli shells inside the U.N. posts. The Israeli guns are about one mile from Qana.

A Fijian soldier at the U.N. camp said he watched the Israeli artillery explosions move across a small valley and into the camp. The shells pocked the base with shrapnel, then landed on three buildings where Lebanese civilians were housed, according to Sgt. Maj. Cama Vakarewa.

"It's war. As a soldier you expect to be in it. But not as a civilian," he said.

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