U.N. officials backed away today from the charge that Israeli troops mutilated the bodies of five Palestinian guerrillas killed in Lebanon on Christmas Day.
While conceding in private that the Israeli denial "can be reconciled" with the eyewitness account of U.N. military observers, officials here refuse to repudiate their own troops publicly or accept an israeli offer to inspect the bodies.
Instead, the officials said, efforts are under way in Jerusalem to negotiate a satisfactory political solution of the incident -- one that perserves U.N. credibility and Israeli honor.
Officials at U.N. headquarters here rejected the Israeli offer to examine the bodies, they say, because "we do not think it will prove anythng conclusive" after the bodies have been buried for 15 days. One U.N. official asked, "How can you be sure they were the same bodies?"
The U.N. objective appeared to be to sustain the morale of its troops. "We do not want to deny our soldiers, who have the duty to report what they saw," an official here said. "We cannot say our soldiers lied."
But "we are not saying what the Dutch [troops] saw was the truth of the siutation," an official added.
The Israelis, however, are still irate about the U.N. charges and are demanding a retraction. they argue that U.N. credibility as a peacekeeper in the area will be damaged otherwise.
The incident began on Christmas morning near the village of Shama -- a part of the border sector within view of Dutch troops in the U.N. peacekeeping contingent but controlled by the Israeli-backed Christian militia of Maj. Saad Haddad.
The version reported by the Dutch soldiers, and made public by the United Nations, is that Israeli troops piled up the bodies and sprinkled them with liquid and an explosive charge and that "the device detonated as planned."
After four days, with the bodies not buried, the United Nations sent a bural team to the area, and it was fired upon by Israeli troops. The Israelis then took the remains to Israel for burial.
After the U.N. account was issued, Israel strongly denied it, insisting that its troops used three charges to blow up munitions the guerrillas had with them -- but left the bodies intact.
Israel also offered to allow a joint inspection of the remains by U.N. and Israeli officers, but two days ago officials here instructed Gen. Emmanuel Erskine, the commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force, to decline the offer.
Today, U.N. officials here conceded that in the light of the Israeli explanations, the two accounts can be reconciled. they suggested that the pile of bodies might have been the same line of vision as the pile of munitions and that, seen from a distance by the Dutch, it might have appeared that the bodies rather than ammunition were blown up.
In the next report to the Security Council on the operations of the U.N. peacekeeping contingent in Lebanon, an official said, "we will take due not of any information Israel has made available to us" on the incident.
The U.N. objective now, he said, is to resolve the dispute through negotiation and "maintain a good working relationship with the Israeli Defense Forces."