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Israeli Attacks Kill 75 In South Lebanon

April 19, 1996

QANA, Lebanon (AP) _ Israeli shells killed at least 75 Lebanese refugees Thursday, filling a U.N. camp with blood, horror and survivors’ cries for revenge. Israel admitted an ``unfortunate mistake″ in the attack, which seemed certain to deepen further the hatreds of the Middle East.

The carnage, which left bodies torn apart, was the worst since Israel began its onslaught against Hezbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon eight days ago. While expressing regret for the civilians’ deaths, Israel fiercely defended its Lebanon campaign and said the shells that hit the civilians had been aimed at Hezbollah rocket launchers.

President Clinton called for a cease-fire by all parties to the fighting and ordered Secretary of State Warren Christopher to the region to mediate. Israel said it would accept a cease-fire if others agreed to it, a move that would leave Israel short of its goal of shutting down the Hezbollah war machine.

The Israeli attack left the U.N. base littered with butchered and headless bodies, shredded clothing and scraps of building materials. Badly wounded people were rushed to a hospital, where angry civilians attacked three Hezbollah members, beating them with sticks and chairs and accusing them of being the source of Lebanon’s misery.

Lebanese leaders called the Israeli shelling ``the mother of all atrocities″ and a new page in ``the annals of terror.″

Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said, ``I’m pained by every person, every woman, every child, who is being killed,″ But he said Israel had ``no choice but to defend its citizens,″ and he accused the Iranian-backed guerrillas of Hezbollah of hiding behind civilians.

The United Nations said that shortly before the Israeli shells landed, Hezbollah guerrillas about 300 yards from the U.N. compound had fired two Katyusha rockets and eight mortar rounds at the Israelis. The Israeli shells apparently were in retaliation for that fire, but missed their target.

Unlike the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who fled north when Israel warned it would attack their villages, the 6,000 refugees at U.N. bases had elected to stay in the south, believing they were safe among the peacekeepers. About 500 refugees were at the U.N. base outside Qana.

Refugee children were playing outside, watched by their parents from a grass hut _ a traditional bouri that the 70 Fijian soldiers had built to remind themselves of their Pacific Island home _ when the first of five 155-mm howitzer shells slammed into the U.N. base at 3 p.m. It was just after lunch.

As the smoke cleared from the compound, dozens of victims lay on the ground in pools of blood, their bodies cut to pieces by shrapnel. Some bodies were headless. Peacekeepers, still wearing flak jackets and blue helmets, broke down in tears as they covered the dead with blankets.

More than a hundred people were wounded, including four soldiers from the Fijian force at Qana, 8 miles southeast of the port city of Tyre, U.N. spokesman Timur Goksel reported.

At Jebel Amel hospital in Tyre, Kamel Nayef, 16, a high school student, moaned from the pain of his bloodstained, plastered right leg.

``I knocked on the door of doomsday,″ he said. ``The rapid, deafening explosions had me thunderstruck. I felt I was facing a firing squad.″

An exact death toll was difficult to determine because casualties were spread around several hospitals and many of those killed in Qana had been blown apart.

``My white rubber shoes have turned red from the blood,″ said a shaken Hassan Seklawi, a Lebanese working as liaison officer for the U.N. peacekeeping force who arrived at the base shortly after the shells exploded.

``I had to walk over bodies that covered the walkways at the base,″ he said.

The shelling happened after Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat announced Thursday that they would resume their peacemaking and begin talks on a final settlement. There was no way to know immediately what impact the shelling would have on peacemaking.

The Israeli foreign minister, Ehud Barak, called the attack on the base an ``unfortunate mistake.″ Immediately after the attack, Peres placed the blame on Lebanese guerrillas and said Israel had an obligation to defend itself against guerrilla attacks.

Later Thursday, however, Israel’s Army radio reported that Israel had agreed to a cease-fire as called by the United States on the condition that Syria and Lebanon commit to restraining the Hezbollah.

The guerrillas have been fighting since 1985 to drive Israeli troops from the border enclave they occupy in south Lebanon. Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon, has stayed out of the latest conflict.

Israel began its recent offensive of air and artillery attacks eight days ago to silence Hezbollah rocket fire on northern Israel. It comes in the runup to parliamentary elections on May 29. While Israel has not sent ground troops, it has shelled targets in southern Lebanon, and Israeli warplanes and helicopter gunships have ranged as far north as Beirut to strike at Hezbollah strongholds.

Hezbollah has fired 250 Katyusha rockets at northern Israel during the offensive, Israel TV reported Thursday.

News of Thursday’s shelling was first radioed from the base. ``We’re under fire. Shells are landing on headquarters. People are dying here,″ said a radio operator, his voice choking.

Three tin-roofed hangars housing the refugees took direct hits.

Hezbollah’s press office in Beirut denied firing rockets from Qana. But the Shiite Muslim fundamentalists have been launching Katyushas for days from all over the region southeast of Tyre.

On Tuesday, a Fijian soldier was shot in the chest when he challenged guerrillas preparing to launch rockets near the Qana base and two were wounded Wednesday when guerrillas lobbed a hand grenade at another Fijian post.

Earlier Thursday, 11 people, including a mother and seven children, were killed when Israeli warplanes flattened an apartment building in the village of Nabatiyeh Fawqah, 20 miles north of Qana.

Before the attack on Qana, 59 people had been killed and 199 wounded in Israel’s 8-day offensive, most of them Lebanese civilians, according to figures from Lebanese and Israeli authorities.

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