Secretary-General proposes joint UN-Israeli inquiry into Lebanon peacekeeper deaths

Secretary-General Kofi Annan briefing correspondents at UN Headquarters in New York on the issue of the Middle East. (UN Photo/Mark Garten)

Following yesterday’s killings of three United Nations peacekeepers - and possibly a fourth - during an air attack in south Lebanon, Secretary-General Kofi Annan today accepted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s expression of “deep sorrow” and suggested a joint investigation into the incident.

Speaking to journalists in Rome, where he is meeting with world leaders on the crisis, Mr. Annan said that Mr. Olmert believes that the bombing was a mistake. The Secretary-General emphasized that in his own statement he had used the word “apparent” in relation to whether Israeli forces deliberately targeted the attack on the Khiyam base of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

“But you need to look at the events of yesterday,” he urged. “The shelling of the UN position, which is long-established and clearly marked, started in the morning and went on till after 7:00 p.m., when we lost contact.”

“You can imagine the anguish of the soldiers and the men and women - unarmed military observers - who were down there in the service of peace,” he said, stressing that the peacekeepers were in frequent touch with the Israeli army, pleading with them to avoid striking their location.

However, Mr. Annan added, “we await the investigations.”

Meanwhile, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jane Holl Lute, also welcomed Israel’s call for an investigation, transmitting the Organization’s preference for a joint probe, as she briefed the Security Council today on the fatal incident.

UNIFIL reported that 21 strikes were made within 300 meters of the patrol base yesterday, with the mission protesting each one to the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Ms. Holl Lute added that she herself, as well as Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown, made several calls to Israel’s UN embassy to reiterate those protests.

After UNIFIL headquarters lost contact with the base, it coordinated safe passage for two armoured personnel carriers, which reached it at 9:30 p.m. and discovered the shelter collapsed among other major damage, she said. Three observers were found killed and a fourth is feared dead.

Despite repeated requests to the IDF for abatement, firing was maintained during the rescue operation, she added, and continued to strike near UNIFIL positions as she spoke.

She emphasized that UNIFIL has also come under direct attacks by small arms fire from Hezbollah forcing the mission to abort the escort of Lebanese civilians to safe areas and movement of troops on other humanitarian missions.

Since the 12 July outbreak of hostilities in Lebanon, UNIFIL reports that a civilian international staff member and his wife have been killed and five soldiers and a military observer have been wounded, in addition to yesterday’s deaths.

Under these circumstances, Ms. Holl Lute said the mission might need to consolidate its observers to minimize further risk to its personnel.

The UN staff union’s committee on security called on Mr. Annan to suspend UNIFIL’s operations, pull back its personnel from hazardous positions until the situation improves, and conduct a full investigation of the fatal bombing.

“This incident once again serves as a tragic reminder of the innumerable risks undertaken daily by United Nations personnel across the globe,” the committee said, strongly protesting the attacks.

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