Let the bloodletting begin!

July 28, 2006

In News

By LEE KEATH, Associated Press Writer

The United Nations has decided to remove 50 unarmed observers from posts along the Israeli-Lebanese border and relocate them with lightly armed U.N. peacekeepers, a spokesman said Friday. The decision came three days after an Israeli airstrike destroyed one of the posts earlier this week, killing four observers from Austria, Canada, China and Finland.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said Israel appeared to have struck the site deliberately — an accusation Israel vehemently denies. But a U.N. Security Council statement Thursday expressed shock and distress at the killing of the observers, but avoided any condemnation.

“These are unarmed people and this is for their protection,” said Milos Struger, a spokesman for U.N. peacekeepers. He said the 2,000 peacekeepers in Lebanon have light weapons for self-defense.

The observer mission, known as UNTSO, had kept about 50 observers in four posts along the border. Two posts have already been abandoned: the one destroyed at Khiam on July 25, and a second near the village of Maroun al-Ras, where Hezbollah guerrilla gunfire wounded an observer on July 23.

Staff from the two remaining posts would be relocated at border posts of the peacekeeping mission, known as UNIFIL, Struger said. He would not say whether the move had been completed.

UNTSO — the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization — was established in 1948 to observe the cease-fire following the war that followed Israel’s creation.

UNIFIL — the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon — was created to confirm Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 1978. It has over 30 observation posts and bases along the border, monitoring and reporting on violence in the region. The two organizations generally work together now.

The recent bloodshed erupted July 12 after Hezbollah guerrillas crossed the Lebanese border into Israel and captured two Israeli soldiers. Israel retaliated with its massive assault on Lebanon, now in its 17th day.

Rescue workers have recovered the bodies of three of the observers killed in Khiam, but the fourth body remains buried in the rubble of the destroyed building. Heavy equipment cannot reach the site due to continued Israeli bombardment, UNIFIL said in a statement.

In the drafting of the Security Council statement, the United States — Israel’s closest ally — insisted on dropping any condemnation or allusion to the possibility that Israel deliberately targeted the U.N. post.

The statement made only one reference to the wider Israeli-Hezbollah fighting, expressing the council’s “deep concern for Lebanese and Israeli civilian casualties and sufferings, the destruction of civil infrastructures and the rising number of internally displaced people in Lebanon.”

It dropped a call for a joint investigation into the observer post bombing but called on Israel to take into account “any relevant material from U.N. authorities, and to make the results public as soon as possible.”

Israel has expressed regret for the bombing and stressed that it would never target U.N. personnel.

Speaking to the Security Council on Wednesday, U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Jane Lute said the observer post came under close Israeli fire 21 times, including 12 hits within 100 yards and four direct hits. U.N. officials in New York and Lebanon repeatedly protested to Israel in the hours before a bomb leveled the building and killed the four observers, she said.

On July 17, a civilian staff member for UNIFIL and his wife, both Nigerian, were killed in their home by airstrikes in the southern port city of Tyre, according to the peacekeeping force.

In other developments, Israeli warplanes fired missiles at dozens of targets across southern Lebanon overnight, including buildings that were reduced to rubble and a Hezbollah base where long-range rockets were stored, the military said.

Israeli defense forces said aircraft hit a total of 130 targets in Lebanon on Thursday and early Friday, including a Hezbollah base in the Bekaa Valley, where long-range rockets were stored, and 57 Hezbollah structures, six missile launching sites and six communication facilities.

Israeli jets fired missiles at a three-story building near the southern Lebanon market town of Nabatiyeh, destroying the building and killing a Jordanian man who was hit by shrapnel in a nearby home, Lebanese security officials.

The building housed a construction company believed to be owned by a Hezbollah activist, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk with the media. The strike also wounded four children nearby, they said.

Israel also destroyed two buildings in the village of Kfar Jouz near Nabatiyeh, and civil defense teams were struggling to rescue people believed buried in the rubble, witnesses said.

Warplanes pounded roads in southeastern Lebanon, a Lebanese army checkpoint in Ansar village and a castle in Arnoun village near the Lebanon-Israel border. In addition, Israeli jets fired more than 30 missiles at suspected Hezbollah hideouts in hills and mountainous areas in the southern part of the country, security officials said.

Israeli artillery hit a convoy evacuating villagers from southern Lebanon, slightly wounding a journalist and a driver.

Mohammed Naghawi, a Jordanian cameraman working for German TV channel N24, told The Associated Press by telephone that he and his driver Mohammed Haddad were rushed to U.N. peacekeeping headquarters at the border town of Naqoura for treatment of superficial injuries at hospital there.

An AP photographer in the convoy, who was unhurt, said the explosion occurred as the ambulances, evacuees and journalists were returning from the village of Rmeish, where it had picked up residents trapped by the fighting.

The convoy was driving on a border road about 2 1/2 miles east of the coastal town of Naqoura, when the strike hit.

Meanwhile, the guerrillas continued to launch rockets into northern Israel on Friday, with 10 fired at the towns of Ma’alot, Karmiel and Safed by midmorning, the army said. No casualties were reported.

At least 438 people have been reported killed in Lebanon since fighting broke out between Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerrillas, most of them Lebanese civilians. But Lebanon’s health minister estimated Thursday that as many as 600 civilians have been killed so far in the offensive.

Thirty-three Israeli soldiers have died in the fighting and 19 civilians have been killed in Hezbollah’s unyielding rocket attacks on Israel’s northern towns, the army said.

The army said Friday that Israeli troops have killed about 200 Hezbollah guerrillas since fighting began more than two weeks ago. Hezbollah has reported far fewer casualties.

Israel launched its offensive in Lebanon on July 12, after Hezbollah guerrillas overran the border, killing eight soldiers and capturing two others. Israeli forces opened an earlier offensive in the Gaza Strip on June 28, three days after Hamas militants attacked Israeli army post in southern Israeli, killing two soldiers and capturing another one.

Hezbollah and Hamas have both demanded the release of Hezbollah and Palestinian prisoners in return for freedom for the three Israeli captives, but Israel’s government has refused.

Israel decided on Thursday not to expand its ground battle with Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon for now, but the Cabinet authorized the army to call up 30,000 reserve soldiers in case the fighting intensified.

In Geneva, the international Red Cross appealed for $81 million to help victims of the fighting in Lebanon. Life is becoming “unbearably dangerous” for civilians who have been trapped by the violence, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

Resources and access to water and basic services are also very limited, the ICRC said in a statement, while medical evacuations and aid operations are very difficult and cannot meet the population’s needs.

“In southern Lebanon, the No. 1 issue today is ensuring the safety of civilians and securing safe access for those engaged in medical and other humanitarian activities,” said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, the ICRC’s director of operations.

“At the same time, the damage to civilian infrastructure and the country’s economy, coupled with the large-scale displacement of civilians, requires an emergency response that is likely to extend into next year,” Kraehenbuehl said.

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