Report of the Secretary-General on UNIFIL (21 January 2006 to 18 July 2006)

UNIFIL peacekeepers direct evacuees to the transfer point in the port of Tyre, Southern Lebanon, 20 July 2006 (UNFICYP Photo)

I. Introduction

1. The present report is submitted pursuant to Security Council resolution 1655 (2006) of 31 January 2006, by which the Council extended the mandate of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) for a further period of six months, until 31 July 2006. It covers developments since the previous report, dated 18 January 2006 (S/2006/26).

II. Situation in the area of operation

2. The situation in the UNIFIL area of operation remained tense and volatile, although it was generally quiet during most of the reporting period. This situation completely changed on 12 July, when the current hostilities broke out and the area was plunged into the most serious conflict in decades.

3. The crisis started when, around 9 a.m. local time, Hizbollah launched several rockets from Lebanese territory across the withdrawal line (the so-called Blue Line) towards Israel Defense Forces (IDF) positions near the coast and in the area of the Israeli town of Zarit. In parallel, Hizbollah fighters crossed the Blue Line into Israel and attacked an IDF patrol. Hizbollah captured two IDF soldiers, killed three others and wounded two more. The captured soldiers were taken into Lebanon. Subsequent to the attack on the patrol, a heavy exchange of fire ensued across the Blue Line between Hizbollah and IDF: While the exchange of fire stretched over the entire length of the Line, it was heaviest in the areas west of Bint Jubayl and in the Shab’a farms area. Hizbollah targeted IDF positions and Israeli towns south of the Blue Line. Israel retaliated by ground, air and sea attacks. In addition to airstrikes on Hizbollah positions, IDF targeted numerous roads and bridges in southern Lebanon within and outside the UNIFIL area of operations. IDF has stated that those attacks were to “prevent Hizbollah from transferring the abducted soldiers”. At least one IDF tank and an IDF platoon crossed into Lebanon in the area of the Hizbollah attack in an attempt to rescue the captured soldiers. An explosive device detonated under the tank, killing four more IDF soldiers. An eighth IDF soldier was reportedly killed in fighting that ensued during an attempt to retrieve the four bodies. That night, the IDF issued a warning to UNlFlL that any person - including United Nations personnel - moving close to the Blue Line would be shot at.

4. In the afternoon of 12 July local time, the Government of Lebanon requested UNIFIL to broker a ceasefire. Israel responded that a ceasefire would be contingent upon the return of the captured soldiers.

5. Hostilities within and outside the UNlFlL area of operations have continued without interruption since 12 July. Israel continues to conduct large-scale airstrikes on infrastructure and strategic targets throughout Lebanon, including the Beirut international airport, which has since remained closed, the port, various Beirut suburbs and towns further north along the coast and in the Bekaa Valley. The Beirut-Damascus highway and other routes connecting Lebanon to the Syrian Arab Republic have also been bombed. Many fuel depots and petrol stations have been destroyed. Within the UNIFIL area of operations, IDF bombings have damaged or destroyed Hizbollah positions in addition to most roads and bridges, obstructing movement throughout the south of the country. Early in the conflict, Israeli planes also dropped leaflets across Lebanon warning the population to avoid areas known for Hizbollah’s presence.

6. Hizbollah rocket attacks have hit many communities in northern Israel and have reached as far south as Haifa and Tiberias, some 35 kilometres from the Blue Line, causing civilian casualties and damaging buildings. An Israeli gunboat patrolling off the coast of Lebanon was hit by a missile on 14 July, causing severe damage. The body of one Israeli sailor was found, while three others remain missing. The reported number of Israeli casualties amounts to 12 IDF soldiers and 13 civilians.

7. On the morning of 15 July, IDF announced via loudspeakers to the residents of Ayta ash Shab and Marwallin that they sliould vacate their villages. UNIFIL observed a large-scale exodus from Ayta ash Shab. However, a large group of villagers from Marwahin approached United Nations observation post Hin and position 1-21 on foot, requesting shelter and humanitarian assistance. UNIFIL explained that it was not in a position to provide humanitarian assistance to the villagers and asked them to return to their homes, where they would be safer. That evening and overnight, two UNlFlL armoured personnel carriers were stationed in Marwahin for the villagers’ protection.

8. In an unrelated incident that day, 18 Lebanese civilians, including women and children, were killed on the road between Al Bayyadah and Shama villages as they were fleeing from Marwahin in two vehicles. Contrary to what was reported in the media, these were not the same civilians who had approached UNIFIL for shelter previously. UNIFIL took the initiative to retrieve the bodies of the civilians. The Force came under fire during the recovery mission. One UNIFIL soldier sustained an injury to his eye when a demonstrator threw a piece of glass at him during the recovery mission. In response to a request from the Government of Lebanon, the following day UNIFIL evacuated 283 inhabitants from Marwahin to Tyre. The convoy came under fire during the evacuation, but no injuries were sustained.

9. Also on 15 July, UNIFIL was informed by IDF that Israel would establish a “special security zone” between 21 villages along the Blue Line and the Israeli technical fence. IDF informed UNlFlL that any vehicles entering the area would be shot at. This security zone would be directly within the UNIFIL area of operation, which would make it impossible to support (or evacuate, if necessary) many UNIFIL positions that are located in the zone. Furthermore, it would prevent UNIFIL from discharging its mandate. I have expressed to the Israeli Prime Minister the concerns of the United Nations about such a “security zone” and the essential need for UNIFIL to be able to immediately resume full freedom of movement throughout its area of operation.

10. Repeated IDF airstrikes have also hit the city of Tyre and its residential areas, where about 150 United Nations personnel and their dependants live. Despite repeated requests to Israel by the Force Commander, General Alain Pellegrini, and United Nations Headquarters, bombing of the Tyre pocket has continued. On 17 July, one building, in which a UNIFIL international staff member and his family were residing, was hit and collapsed. The staff member and his spouse remain unaccounted for. A UNIFIL search-and-rescue effort had to be called off owing to damage to the roads, which made the transport of heavy equipment from the UNIFIL engineering battalion near A1 Hinniyah to Tyre impossible. United Nations personnel and their dependants have since gathered at the United Nations Rest House hotel in Tyre. Following the declaration of security phase three, which calls for the evacuation of non-essential staff and their dependants, preparations are under way for the relocation of UNIFIL dependants and non-essential staff from Tyre.

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