By Scott Wilson and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 26, 2006; A01
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."
As early-warning sirens wailed across northern Israel, Hezbollah fighters fired more than 90 rockets, which landed from the Mediterranean coast to the Sea of Galilee. The barrages killed a teenage girl in the Druze town of Maghar and sent roughly 30 others to hospitals, most of them with symptoms of shock. More than a dozen rockets hit the city of Haifa, Israel's third largest, which only two weeks ago was thought to be beyond the range of Hezbollah's arsenal.
The strikes increased the number of Israeli civilians killed by rocket fire to 18, while 24 Israeli soldiers have died in combat operations. Eight soldiers were wounded early Tuesday in ground operations around Bint Jbeil, a town about two miles inside Lebanon's border that Israeli officials say is a center of Hezbollah's military operation.
By the end of a day of sporadic clashes, Israeli forces claimed to have seized Bint Jbeil, one of the largest towns in the roughly 15-square-mile region where Israel has focused its ground operation. Defense Minister Amir Peretz indicated that Israel intends to hold the region until an acceptable peacekeeping force could be arranged.
Israeli warplanes kept up their attacks across Lebanon, hitting 10 sites in southern Beirut, roads in the battered coastal city of Tyre and a rocket launcher on its outskirts that Israeli military officials said was used earlier in the day to fire on Haifa. Lebanese officials told reporters in Beirut that a dozen Lebanese were killed, bringing the known death toll in two weeks of fighting to about 390, almost all civilians. The number of Hezbollah fighters killed is not known.
The bombing of Beirut's southern suburbs came after a one-day respite during Rice's visit to the Lebanese capital. Four powerful explosions rattled the city toward the end of the day, sending up smoke over the Dahiya suburbs where Hezbollah has its headquarters and where many of its Shiite supporters live.
Six of the victims died in an air raid that demolished two houses in Nabatiyeh, a Shiite town about 16 miles north of Bint Jbeil. A man, his wife and their son were killed in one house, according to a daughter who survived the strike and talked to her father as he died slowly under rubble.
The Associated Press in Beirut quoted Mahmoud Komati, deputy chief of Hezbollah's political arm, as saying "the truth is -- let me say this clearly -- we didn't even expect [this] response . . . that [Israel] would exploit this operation for this big war against us." But Komati said in the interview that the group did not intend to give up its arms.
Much of the day focused on the tentative first phase of diplomacy to halt the fighting, which Olmert has said will end only with the release of the two captured Israeli soldiers, the deployment of the Lebanese army or a multinational force in the south and the implementation of a U.N. resolution that calls for the disarmament of Hezbollah and other militias.
Israeli officials said Rice's meeting with Olmert concerned mostly humanitarian issues at a time when Israel and the United States are being pressured by European and Arab nations to address a growing crisis across Israel's border. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia pledged $500 million Tuesday for Lebanon's reconstruction, days after imploring the White House to endorse an immediate cease-fire.
According to U.S. and Israeli officials, Olmert agreed to lift the blockade as soon as possible. The Israeli navy has prevented ships from docking in Lebanon, while military aircraft have bombed the main airport and its fuel depots, and key roads and bridges across the country of 4 million people.
Israeli military officials say the campaign, which has left much of Lebanon's civilian infrastructure in tatters, is designed to prevent Hezbollah from restocking its arms supplies. Much of its weapons stocks come from Iran through Syria, Israeli officials say.
Rice's meeting with Olmert also touched on what a senior Israeli official described as "Israel's exit strategy." The official said the government believes it has at least until Rice returns to the region -- perhaps next week -- to press on with its military operation.
"At the end of the day, the international community realizes we are doing a dirty job on its behalf" against Hezbollah, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on the talks.
The official said the deployment of a multinational force was "in the cards," mainly because Israel remembers "the trauma" of its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon that ended in May 2000.
But the official said composing such a peacekeeping force would take time given that key questions remain unanswered, including which countries would take part and what the force's mandate would be. The official said any multinational force must be able to confront Hezbollah, something the current U.N.-led observer mission in southern Lebanon has not done.
"One of the big issues on the table is that a cease-fire has to get it right," said Mark Regev, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. "You cannot have a cease-fire that allows for an immediate rearming of Hezbollah."
After meeting with Olmert, Rice traveled to Ramallah in the West Bank for a largely symbolic meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who demanded an immediate cease-fire along Israel's second front in the Gaza Strip. The fighting there began June 25 when the military wing of the governing Hamas movement and two smaller armed groups captured a 19-year-old Israeli soldier in a raid on an army post just outside Gaza.
Abbas has been pressuring Hamas to endorse a two-state solution to the conflict, something Rice said was still viable in the form of the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map." Before the Gaza crisis began, Abbas had called for a referendum on a document that endorses a future Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. The vote was scheduled to be held Wednesday, but has been left behind in the violence.
"Israeli aggression in the West Bank and Gaza Strip must stop immediately so we can strengthen the truce and start a political process that aims to end the occupation," Abbas said.
[Israel on Wednesday sent tanks into Gaza and launched airstrikes, killing two fighters, from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, in Gaza City, the Reuters news agency reported, citing medics. Palestinian officials said a total of seven people were killed overnight.]
To protest Rice's visit, Palestinians organized a general strike that shuttered Ramallah's commercial districts. Shortly before she arrived in a convoy of bulletproof vans, hundreds of Palestinians marched through nearly empty streets, carrying placards calling on Rice to "go home." Others waved Lebanese flags.
"The United States has no credibility," said Khalida Jarrar, a Palestinian legislator from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian, a radical nationalist faction with a Marxist orientation. "What's happening in Lebanon makes the U.S. image look worse and worse."
Wright reported from Jerusalem and Ramallah. Correspondents Jonathan Finer in Avivim, Israel, Edward Cody in Beirut and Anthony Shadid in Tyre contributed to this report.