Israeli, U.N. accounts vary on civilian shelter bombing Questions remain over why 100 Lebanese died in peacekeepers' camp

April 24, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF Joshua Brilliant in Tel Aviv contributed to this article.

SIDON, Lebanon -- In the back of a refrigerated produce truck parked beside an empty lot in Sidon, Rabiya Yacub held his breath against the stench and looked at body after body yesterday.

He emerged from the cold truck sweating, and shook his head to his aunt, Fatima Balhesi.

The bodies of her brother-in-law and his seven children, killed by Israeli shelling at a United Nations peacekeepers camp, were there.

But Mrs. Balhesi could not yet end the search for her own 13-year-old daughter who had been with them.

Relatives of the civilians killed at the U.N. camp near Qana on Thursday have been unable to bury the dead because of the war. Some -- like Mrs. Balhesi -- still do not know if loved ones are dead or lying wounded in a hospital somewhere.

Questions about the Qana tragedy, in which about 100 civilians were killed, linger over this mini-war in southern Lebanon and northern Israel. So far the war has claimed about 137 lives in Lebanon and Katyusha rockets have injured 54 in Israel.

It remains unclear how the Qana incident happened and why. New explanations from Israel conflict with those of the United Nations. And the Israeli accounts do not fully answer the question of whether the shelling of the base was accidental, or an intentional disregard of the post's peace-keeping role while responding to a nearby Katyusha rocket launch.

Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres offered the latter explanation in interviews published and broadcast in Israel yesterday.

He and other officials suggested for the first time publicly that an Israeli army unit was operating outside of Israel's occupation zone in South Lebanon, and had called for an artillery barrage when the Israeli commander mistakenly thought his unit had taken casualties.

"It [was] decided to return fire. It is known that when shooting begins, U.N. people enter shelters," he said. He said the Israeli military did not know there were civilians in the shelters.

Mikael Lindvall, a U.N. spokesman and liaison officer between the peacekeepers and Israeli forces, said he had personally told an Israeli general several days previously that all the U.N. posts held refugees. He declined to name the general.

The Qana tragedy will mar any positive result Israel may yet draw from the operation. Already, critics in Israel are saying Israel cannot emerge victorious from "Operation Grapes of Wrath," if only for Qana. "The incident harmed our international image, no doubt," acknowledged Mr. Peres.

Two investigations have begun: one by the Israeli military, and one at the request of the U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

Whatever the findings, Qana is likely to join the lists of tragedies kept by both sides as evidence for their abiding grievances.

Qana, the rural town eight miles southeast of Tyre, is a virtual ghost town now. At the U.N. camp on its outskirts, Fijian peacekeeping soldiers of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, go about their chores.

The remains of the three flimsy buildings struck by Israeli artillery shells last week have been bulldozed away. Only a handful of civilian refugees remain.

Last week, the post was jammed with civilians who had been unwilling or unable to heed Israel's demand to flee northward. Instead, they came to the 70 UNIFIL posts scattered about South Lebanon, in this case a Fijian battalion headquarters.

According to accounts offered by the Fijian soldiers, U.N. officials and witnesses, Hezbollah guerrillas fired Katyushas from a cemetery about 350 yards away. The post commander, Lt. Col. Wame Waqanivavalagi, said his men had not seen the guerrillas set up their mobile launchers.

From a distance of more than 3 1/2 football fields in hilly terrain, they were easily hidden, he said. His men do try to move the Hezbollah away from posts and civilian areas when they can; one of his officers had been shot in the side just two days before in an argument with Hezbollah over a launch site.

When the Katyushas fired, more civilians rushed to the U.N. post, expecting Israeli retaliation. Indeed, a series of explosions from 155 mm artillery shells -- each shell about 3 feet tall and 5 inches around -- began reaching toward the camp, according to soldiers.

Israeli shelling near UNIFIL bases is a frequent occurrence, and both sides have set procedures for dealing with it. UNIFIL notifies the Israelis to stop; on their side, Israel is to give UNIFIL a "shelling warning" before they aim salvos near U.N. bases.

According to the UNIFIL account of events, after the first shell landed on the base, the Fiji soldiers shouted, "We are being shelled," over the radio to the UNIFIL operations room in Naqoura, near the Israel-Lebanon border.

The operations room immediately notified the Israeli army. The army "called back after about two or three minutes, and gave us the famous shelling warning," said Mr. Lindvall.

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