Israeli Shells Kill Dozens at U.N. Base, Building in South Lebanon
QANA, Lebanon (AP) _ A barrage of Israeli artillery shells slammed into a U.N. base today, and a U.N. spokesman said at least 75 Lebanese refugees who had sought sanctuary from an Israeli military offensive were killed.
Other reports put the toll from the attack on the southern village of Qana as high as 94. More than 100 people were wounded, and two Fijian soldiers with the U.N. peacekeeping force were reported missing.
The shelling sharply escalated the violence in Lebanon and was a new shock to broader hopes of peace in the Middle East. President Clinton called for a cease-fire by all parties in the conflict and directed Secretary of State Warren Christopher to travel to the region to help mediate.
The attack was the bloodiest incident since Israeli troops went on the offensive eight days ago to stop Hezbollah guerrillas from firing rockets on northern Israel.
It happened just as Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat announced 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 the peace process.
Most of the casualties were people who had gathered under a traditional bouri hut that Fijian soldiers built to remind themselves of their Pacific Island home, he said.
Israel’s foreign minister, Ehud Barak, called the attack on the base an ``unfortunate mistake.″ But Peres placed the blame on Lebanese guerrillas and said Israel had an obligation to defend itself against guerrilla attacks.
Hezbollah guerrillas fired two Katyusha rockets and eight mortars at Israel from an area 300 yards away from the Fijian compound 15 minutes before Israeli gunners opened fire, U.N. spokeswoman Sylvana Foa said, quoting the commander of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon.
At least five 155-mm howitzer shells struck the headquarters of the Fijian battalion, U.N. officers said.
``We’re under fire,″ a radio operator at the base said, his voice choking as he relayed word of the attack to other U.N. posts. ``Shells are landing on headquarters. People are dying here.″
``My white rubber shoes have turned red from the blood,″ said Hassan Seklawi, a Lebanese who works as a liaison officer for the U.N. force said from the scene.
``I had to walk over bodies that covered the walkways at the base,″ he said.
Most of the victims had been in the bouri hut when the Israeli bombardment began.
``There were many shells, and it caught fire,″ U.N. spokesman Timor Goksel said.
People were burning inside the building, and ``it took a long time to convince the Israelis to stop firing,″ he said.
Two buildings were destroyed and others were damaged, U.N. officials said.
No firm casualty count was available, and Goksel said the number was expected to rise. He said he could confirm 75 dead, but that the hospital in nearby southern port of Tyre told him 94 people had been killed.
Lebanese police listed 70 killed and 117 wounded, while Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said 68 were killed and 120 were wounded.
Four Fijians soldiers were among the wounded. Three were flown to Haifa, Israel, for treatment.
The Israeli military offensive has driven some 400,000 terrified Lebanese from their homes. About 6,000 Lebanese have refused to join the exodus toward Beirut, and U.N. spokesman Timor Goksel said about 500 of them had sought safety at the U.N. base in Qana.
Goksel said Israeli officers had assured the United Nations that they had orders not to fire near U.N. positions. The United Nations had sought these assurances after a Fijian soldier was wounded by an Israeli shell Sunday when he tried to stop a Hezbollah fighter from firing a rocket.
Peres said Israel was sorry for the loss of civilian life, but said Hezbollah was to blame.
``I am pained by every person, every woman, every child, who is being killed,″ he said at a news conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. ``But Israel was left with no choice but to defend its citizens.″
Israel’s government was expected to come under increasing international pressure to negotiate a cease-fire as a result of today’s shelling. The large loss of civilian life might force Israel to accept a quick diplomatic settlement on terms less favorable than it sought.
Still, Peres insisted that the Israeli military offensive will continue despite today’s bloodbath.
Israel’s armed forces chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, seemed to place some of the blame on the U.N. forces. Without naming the United Nations directly, he said Hezbollah guerrillas should have been prevented from firing Katyusha rockets in the vicinity of the U.N. base.
Before the attack on the U.N. base, 59 people had been reported killed and 196 wounded since the Israeli offensive began, according to Lebanese police, who say most of the dead are Lebanese civilians. Israel gives similar casualty counts, but says about 30 of the dead are guerrillas. Ten of the wounded are Israeli civilians, Israel says.
The casualty counts include dead and wounded from the attack earlier today on an apartment building in the village of Nabatiyeh Fawqah, 20 miles away. Eleven people died in that attack, including a mother, her 4-day-old daughter and six other children, according to the Lebanese army.
Lebanese security sources said the building had been used by families who defied Israeli orders to evacuate southern Lebanon or risk being caught in an attack.
Uri Dromi, the Israeli government spokesman, said Hezbollah guerrillas had fired at Israeli helicopters from the house.
Israeli gunboats joined in the battle for the first time today, firing shells that hit Syrian army and intelligence checkpoints on the coastal highway near the southern provincial capital of Sidon.
American mediator Dennis Ross was sent to the Middle East today to try to negotiate an end to the escalating fighting, and Clinton later ordered Christopher to follow. U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali is also sending a senior military adviser to Lebanon to investigate the attack.