Annan: Israel bombed UN base for hours

· UN chief proposes joint investigation
· No sign of ceasefire agreement
· Aid agencies criticise Blair

Staff and agencies
Wednesday July 26, 2006
Guardian Unlimited

The UN general secretary, Kofi Annan, today accused the Israeli military of carrying out a sustained bombing of the UN base on the Lebanon-Israel border that culminated in the killing of four unarmed monitors.

Mr Annan said he had suggested to the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, that they carry out a joint investigation into the events that led to the shelling of the "well-established and well marked" Unifil (UN interim force in Lebanon) post in the town of Khiyam.

"I spoke to Mr Olmert and he definitely believes it was a mistake and has expressed his deep sorrow, " Mr Annan told a press conference in Rome.

"But the shelling started in the morning and went on until after 7pm. You cannot imagine the anguish of the unarmed men and women peacekeepers who were there."

According to a detailed timeline of the incident provided by an unidentified UN officer and reported by CNN, the first bomb exploded around 200 metres from the post at 1.20pm (11.20am BST) yesterday.

Unifil observers then telephoned their designated contact with the Israeli military, who assured them the attacks would stop. In the following hours, nine more bombs fell close to the post, each one followed by a call to the Israeli military, the UN officer said.

The main Unifil base in the town of Naqoura lost contact with the post at 7.40pm, seemingly the time when the post received a direct hit.

The UN office in Naqoura could not be contacted today.

The four monitors came from Austria, Canada, China and Finland. The Chinese foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, said today he was saddened by the news and that it showed "we should try harder to call on the parties to be restrained and to be calm and restore the peace process of the Middle East immediately".

The 2,000-strong Unifil force, which sits on the Israel-Lebanon border, has suffered dozens of attacks and direct hits in two weeks of conflict. Israel is suspicious of the force and wants it beefed up with an international stabilisation force involving up to 20,000 troops.

Earlier Mr Olmert telephoned Mr Annan to express his "deep regrets" over the deaths of the UN monitors, the Israeli prime minister's office said.

Mr Annan said last night the air strike was "apparently deliberate" and other UN officials said the attacks on the UN bunker had continued during a rescue effort. Dan Gillerman, Israel's UN ambassador, reacted furiously to Mr Annan's comments last night, describing them as "premature and erroneous".

The deaths of the monitors cast a shadow over today's meeting in Rome, where foreign ministers gathered to discuss the two-week-old Israeli-Lebanese crisis.

The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and the foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, were among the ministers attending the talks in Rome, which ended with no clear indication of when a ceasefire would be achieved.

Meanwhile, at least nine Israeli soldiers were killed in heavy fighting with Hizbullah guerrillas in south Lebanon today, Arab television stations said.

Al-Jazeera said nine soldiers were killed in Bint Jbeil, while Al Arabiya television said at least 12 soldiers were killed there.

Israeli forces encircled the southern Lebanese town yesterday, with one commander describing it as the "capital of Hizbullah". The Israeli army said yesterday that it had killed up to 30 Hizbullah fighters as it aimed to dismantle Hizbullah command posts there and destroy rocket launchers.

The prime minister was today facing mounting pressure to endorse calls for an immediate ceasefire amid claims that his position and that of the Bush administration were putting civilian lives at risk.

Aid agencies, religious groups and the public sector union, Unison, wrote an open letter to Tony Blair condemning his refusal to back the UN's demands for a ceasefire.

The letter - signed by 14 organisations including Amnesty International, Christian Aid and the Muslim Council of Britain - warns that the UK government is diluting calls for peace. "

By failing to back the UN and call for an immediate ceasefire, the UK government has reduced the impact of international calls for an immediate halt to the violence," the letter says.

Mr Blair's official spokesman said the prime minister was engaged "almost on an hourly basis" in trying to secure support for a stabilisation force and was ready to take "heat" from critics. The government hoped to secure "broad agreement in principle" in Rome to the idea of a stabilisation force, the spokesman told reporters.

Israeli warplanes bombed 100 targets in southern Lebanon yesterday and one family of seven civilians was killed. More than 400 Lebanese have been killed in total.

Hizbullah yesterday fired some 70 rockets into northern Israel, killing a 15-year-old girl. More than 40 Israelis have died in the violence, including 18 who have been killed by rockets.

This morning, more Hizbullah rockets hit three areas of northern Israel, seriously injuring one person, medics said. The rockets fell in Haifa, Carmiel and Kiryat Bialik, where one person was seriously wounded, the medics said. It was not immediately clear if there were more injuries.

Meanwhile, a Jordanian military plane landed at Beirut's international airport this morning to evacuate people seriously wounded in the conflict.

Airport officials said the aircraft was the first jet to land at Beirut's airport since July 13, when Israeli warplanes bombed its runways and forced it to close. Israel said yesterday it would allow planes carrying humanitarian aid to land in Beirut. Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel.