UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations post where four peacekeepers were killed by Israeli fire Tuesday was hit at least 16 times over a six-hour period, including five direct hits on the base, as its unarmed staff repeatedly notified Israeli liaison officers and begged for help, U.N. officials said Wednesday.
On Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had said the air strike that hit the post in southern Lebanon was “apparently deliberate.”
On Wednesday in Rome for an international conference on the fighting in Lebanon, he told reporters that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had called him to express his “deep sorrow” at what happened and to promise an investigation. Annan said he suggested it be a joint inquiry.
In Jerusalem, Olmert confirmed the bombardment was under investigation but said Annan’s accusation that it was deliberate was “inconceivable.”
The U.N. post was “long established and clearly marked,” Annan said Wednesday.
U.N. officials who briefed reporters said the attack began around 1:20 p.m. Radio contact with the post was lost around 7:30 that evening. During those hours, U.N. officials made at least a half-dozen calls to top officials at the Israeli mission to the U.N. to seek an end to the attack, a senior U.N. official said. Additional calls were made to the Israeli military by U.N. generals on the ground demanding that the Israelis hold fire.
The calls went unheeded, and the fire continued even when a U.N. rescue mission was under way after a direct hit on the observer post, the official said.
The nearest known Hezbollah activity was about three miles away; in the past, however, there have been Hezbollah weapons caches in the area, said a senior U.N. official. The U.N. is still trying to determine if the hits were from aerial bombardment or artillery.
According to information compiled so far by the U.N., the base, which is one of four in southern Lebanon, had received fire several times in the couple of days before the barrage that killed the observers, who were a Canadian, a Finn, an Austrian and a Chinese.
“They were unarmed observers in the service of peace,” Annan said.