Israeli Airstrike Hits U.N. Outpost

A Lebanese man who fled the fighting listens to news of the crisis from a shelter at an old courthouse in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon.
A Lebanese man who fled the fighting listens to news of the crisis from a shelter at an old courthouse in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon. (By Kevin Frayer -- Associated Press)
By Scott Wilson and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 26, 2006

JERUSALEM, July 25 -- An Israeli airstrike hit a United Nations post in southern Lebanon late Tuesday, killing four international observers, hours after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to lift Israel's 14-day blockade of Lebanon for shipments of humanitarian aid to reach the swelling ranks of displaced Lebanese civilians.

U.N. officials said an aerial shell struck an observer post in the hilltop town of Khiyam, and rescue teams reached the site soon after to search for survivors in the rubble. Milos Strugar, a senior adviser for the mission, known by the acronym UNIFIL, said the four observers inside the post had taken cover in bunkers after 14 Israeli airstrikes landed nearby throughout the afternoon.

In a statement, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said he was "shocked and deeply distressed by the apparently deliberate targeting" of the "clearly marked U.N. post at Khiyam." Annan said Olmert had given him "personal assurances" that U.N. posts would not be targeted, adding that the UNIFIL commander had been in "repeated contact with Israeli officers throughout the day on Tuesday, stressing the need to protect that particular U.N. position from attack."

"I call on the government of Israel to conduct a full investigation into this very disturbing incident and demand that any further attack on U.N. positions and personnel must stop," Annan said.

Israeli government officials, expressing regret over the deaths, said that the U.N. personnel were not targeted and that there would be an investigation.

[The official New China News Agency reported Wednesday that one of the dead was Chinese. The others were from Austria, Canada and Finland, the Associated Press reported, citing U.N. and Lebanese military officials.]

The airstrike came at the end of a day when Hezbollah gunmen operating from southern Lebanon fired scores of missiles into Israel and battled Israeli forces seeking to uproot the Shiite Muslim militia from a border stronghold. The Israeli government and the Bush administration are drawing up plans for a more robust international peacekeeping force to deploy in Lebanon as part of a diplomatic solution to end the fighting, now entering its third week.

After international criticism that Israel was not doing enough to ensure the delivery of food and medicine to Lebanon's increasingly desperate south, Olmert pledged in a meeting here with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier in the day to allow aid flights, sea shipments and safe passage for deliveries on roads that have been targeted for days by Israeli bombers. Israeli officials said they would begin allowing the aid to arrive as soon as possible.

But Lebanese officials warned that it would take at least a week to repair runways at Beirut international airport, bombed by Israeli warplanes along with major roads and bridges in the south after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a July 12 cross-border raid. Israeli military aircraft hit dozens of targets again Tuesday as Olmert, backed by Rice, promised to continue to fight the militia arrayed along the northern border.

"We will reach out for them, we will stop them, and we will not hesitate to take the most severe measures against those who are aiming thousands of missiles against innocent civilians for one purpose -- to kill them," Olmert said. "This is something that we will not be able to tolerate."

Rice's two-day visit to the region was more a listening tour than a determined attempt to end a conflict that showed no sign of abating. She declined to call for an immediate cease-fire, saying that "we cannot return to a status quo ante, in which extremists at any time can decide to take innocent life hostage again."

"It is time for a new Middle East," Rice said. "It is time to say to those who do not want a different kind of Middle East that we will prevail, they will not."

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