- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 26, 2006

BEIRUT — U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday that he accepted Israel’s apology for the bombing of a United Nations’ base in southern Lebanon, but he continued to make clear in public remarks that he does not quite believe that Tuesday’s deadly attack was an accident.

Mr. Annan said he received a telephone call in which Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “expressed his deep sorrow at what happened.”

“We accept that,” the secretary-general told reporters yesterday in Rome. He added that an investigation pledged by Israel should be conducted jointly with the United Nations.

Israel Defense Forces shelled the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) on Tuesday, killing four members and destroying at least one office and residence at the long-established base.

Mr. Annan said late Tuesday that the sustained attack was “apparently deliberate” but yesterday softened his position after strong criticism from Washington.

The Security Council convened an emergency meeting yesterday to hear a preliminary U.N. report on the shelling, which apparently lasted most of Tuesday.

For six frantic hours Tuesday night, U.N. officials in New York and southern Lebanon repeatedly asked Israeli political and military contacts to halt shelling in the vicinity of the U.N. observer mission on the Lebanese border, a peacekeeping official said.

Nonetheless, the operations base took 21 strikes from Israeli artillery, Jane Holl Lute, assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, told council members yesterday. The four members of the force who were killed in the attacks were from China, Finland, Canada and Austria.

“Firing continued during the rescue operation despite repeated requests to the [Israel Defense Forces] for an abatement,” she told the council.

“To our knowledge, unlike in the vicinity of some of our other patrol bases, Hezbollah firing was not taking place within the immediate vicinity of the patrol base,” she said.

Ms. Lute noted that despite these urgent calls, Israel continued to fire on U.N. positions into yesterday afternoon, local time. Mr. Annan showed his impatience yesterday during an international conference aimed at finding a political and military solution to the conflict.

“Our general and troops — people on the ground — were in touch with the Israeli army, warning them, ‘Please be careful. We have positions here. Don’t harm our people.’ And many calls went out until this happened,” he said.

“The shelling of [UNIFIL], which is long-established and clearly marked, started early in the morning and went on till after 7 p.m., when we lost contact,” the diplomat added.

Mr. Olmert yesterday promised an immediate investigation and phoned Mr. Annan to apologize.

The Security Council met about the time that 16 nations and three organizations were gathering in Rome to discuss a settlement of the two-week-old war that has killed about 450 people.

In New York yesterday, the U.N. Security Council was expected to issue a low-level but unanimous press statement expressing regret at the strike. China’s initial attempt to call it a “deliberate” attack was rebuffed by the United States.

“Any attack on the U.N. position and U.N. personnel is inexcusable and unacceptable,” said Chinese Ambassador Wang Guangya, adding that Beijing condemns the attack.

UNIFIL has patrolled the lushly planted hillsides and valleys on the Israel-Lebanon border since 1978, but it always has been a tense and deadly mission.

The mission was put in place after the Lebanese civil war and was conceived to keep Islamic militias from harassing Israeli troops and Israel from taking more Lebanese land for its buffer zone.

But with a weak mandate, UNIFIL’s 2,000 blue helmets have never been very effective.

Islamic militias, primarily Hezbollah and Amal, have long fired on Israeli positions from behind UNIFIL installations. When the Israelis fired back, it was often UNIFIL troops who took the hit. And, as the events of the past two weeks have illustrated, the mission is incapable of putting up a meaningful defense. Lebanese and Israeli citizens have long dismissed the blue helmets as something of a half-hearted international effort.

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