Accusations fly after U.N. observers killed

story.beirut.rubble.afp.gifIsrael angrily denied the accusation.

The U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon initially reported that two peacekeepers were dead and two missing but early Wednesday confirmed that all four were killed in the late Tuesday strike

The observers were Austrian, Finnish, Canadian and Chinese, Lebanese security sources said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was “deeply distressed” by the “apparently deliberate” strike.

“This coordinated artillery and aerial attack on a long-established and clearly marked U.N. post at Khiyam occurred despite personal assurances given to me by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that U.N. positions would be spared Israeli fire,” he said in a statement.

“Furthermore, General Alain Pelligrini, the U.N. force commander in south Lebanon, had been in repeated contact with Israeli officers throughout the day on Tuesday, stressing the need to protect that particular U.N. position from attack.”

The airstrike came as Israeli forces continued to battle Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon, seeking to end the Islamic militia’s rocket attacks on northern Israel.

‘Caught in the middle’

Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said that “UNIFIL obviously got caught in the middle” of a gunfight between Hezbollah guerrillas and Israeli troops.

“We do not have yet confirmation what caused these deaths. It could be (Israel Defense Forces). It could be Hezbollah,” he said.

UNIFIL sent a rescue-and-medical team to the city of Khiyam, where the post was located. Attacks in the vicinity continued as rescuers tried to reach those killed or injured, UNIFIL said.

UNIFIL said there had been at least 14 incidents of fire close to the post since Tuesday afternoon.

Ayalon called Annan’s statement “outrageous,” while Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Dan Gillerman, said he, too, was “deeply distressed” that Annan alleged that the strike was deliberate.

“I am surprised at these premature and erroneous assertions made by the secretary-general, who while demanding an investigation, has already issued its conclusions,” Gillerman said in a statement.

International force proposed

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis continued Wednesday.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Rome, Italy, to meet with European foreign ministers. Sources say she will propose an ambitious plan in which international military forces would help the Lebanese government stabilize southern Lebanon.

Sources say, however, that EU officials want an immediate cease-fire — a move that Israel and the United States have resisted, calling it a “false promise.”

Rice pitched the plan Tuesday to Israeli leader Olmert in Jerusalem, then traveled to the West Bank city of Ramallah for talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The United States’ top diplomat presented the plan Monday to Lebanese officials, the sources said.

Hezbollah leader’s threat

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Wednesday threatened again to take the fight “beyond Haifa.”

Haifa is an Israeli port city that has been frequently targeted by Hezbollah rocket attacks.

Nasrallah also alleged that Israel and the United States had planned to invade Lebanon later this year but put the plan into effect early after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers.

Since July 12, at least 398 people, mostly civilians, have been killed and as many as 1,486 wounded in Lebanon, Lebanese security officials said Wednesday.

At least 41 Israelis have died, including 19 civilians, and at least 388 have been wounded, Israeli officials said.

No letup in the fighting

Israeli soldiers battled Hezbollah fighters in and around Bint Jbeil in southern Lebanon early Wednesday, a day after Israeli military announced it had taken control of the village, Israeli military sources said.

There were 10 casualties among the Israeli troops, Israeli sources said. Arab TV networks reported at least nine Israeli soldiers had been killed.

Israeli troops have pushed into southern Lebanon trying to reduce Hezbollah’s capability to fire Katyusha rockets into northern Israel.

The IDF hopes to create a “security zone” in southern Lebanon until an international force arrives, said Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

Hezbollah rockets fell in the Haifa area Wednesday morning, seriously wounding at least one person and lightly wounding four others, Israeli medical sources said.

About 100 Hezbollah rockets were fired into Israel on Tuesday, striking the cities of Haifa, Carmiel, Kyrat Shmona and Nahiriya, according to the IDF.

One attack killed a 15-year-old girl in the village of Meghar, Israeli police and medical service officials said.

In Haifa, at least 18 people were injured and one man died of a heart attack after a rocket struck near his home, officials said.

In northern Gaza, meanwhile, Israeli tank artillery fire killed seven people Wednesday morning, Palestinian sources said.

An IDF spokesman said the military carried out an airstrike on militants in Gaza but did not confirm any tank shelling

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