Olmert expresses ‘deep regret’ over dead peacekeepers

KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel (AP) — Israel’s prime minister expressed “deep regret” Wednesday over the killings of four U.N. observers in an airstrike and dismay over U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s accusation the bombing was “apparently deliberate.”

Ireland filed an official protest with Israel alleging that its senior U.N. observer in Lebanon made six telephoned warnings about Israeli shelling near a U.N. border outpost hours before the strike. The observers were killed by an Israeli bomb that destroyed the outpost in Lebanon on Tuesday night.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Annan in a phone call Wednesday that the U.N. post was hit inadvertently.

“The prime minister expressed Israel’s deep regret over the mistaken killing of four U.N. peacekeepers,” Olmert said in a statement released by his office. “The prime minister said he has instructed the military to carry out a thorough investigation and that the results will be shared with the U.N. secretary general.”

China demanded that Israel apologize for the attack, which killed a Chinese U.N. observer along with observers from Austria, Canada and Finland.

“We are deeply shocked by this incident and strongly condemn it,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said on the ministry Web site.

His statement said Israel’s ambassador to Beijing was summoned Wednesday morning and asked to convey a request that Israel issue an apology to China and the victims’ families.

“These so-called precision attacks seem to be mainly targeting everyone else except the Hezbollah,” said Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, who added that the attack would increase pressure for a cease-fire.

Austria’s foreign minister, Ursula Plassnik, told her Israeli counterpart by telephone that the bombing was unacceptable and urged Israel to stop its attack on the area, according to a ministry statement.

The European Union joined China and other nations in demanding an Israeli investigation of the attack.

Olmert expressed dismay over Annan’s initial comments in a written statement that the airstrike was “apparently deliberate.”

“It’s inconceivable for the U.N. to define an error as an apparently deliberate action,” Olmert said.

Annan said the “coordinated artillery and aerial attack on a long established and clearly marked U.N. post at Khiam occurred despite personal assurances given to me by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that U.N. positions would be spared Israeli fire.”

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

Lt. Col. John Molloy, the senior Irish officer in the U.N. observer force in south Lebanon, reported making six telephone calls to his Israeli counterparts in the hours before the deadly strike on the border outpost, said Suzanne Coogan, spokeswoman for Irish Defense Minister Willie O’Dea. She said all six calls specifically identified the U.N. post that was ultimately destroyed.

“He warned the Israelis that they were shelling in very close proximity to the post, and his warnings were very specific, explicit, detailed and stark. Obviously those warnings went unheeded,” Coogan said.

Since fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants began two weeks ago, there have been several dozen incidents of firing close to U.N. peacekeepers and observers, including direct hits on nine positions, some of them repeatedly, a U.N. official said.

As a result of these attacks, 12 U.N. personnel have been killed or injured, U.N. officials said.

Tuesday’s bomb hit the building and shelter of the observer post in Khiam near the eastern end of the border with Israel, said Milos Struger, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon known as UNIFIL. The four observers were in a bunker that collapsed in the bombing, a U.N. official said.

Israeli forces kept firing as rescue workers tried to clear the rubble, Struger said.

During an Israeli offensive against Lebanon in 1996, artillery blasted a U.N. base at Qana in southern Lebanon, killing more than 100 civilians taking refuge with the peacekeepers.

The U.N. mission, which has nearly 2,000 military personnel and more than 300 civilians, is to patrol the border line, known as the Blue Line, drawn by the United Nations after Israel withdrew troops from south Lebanon in 2000, ending an 18-year occupation.

On Wednesday, dovish lawmaker Ran Cohen, a colonel in the Israeli army reserves, said that from his experience in Lebanon it was quite possible to make such a mistake.

“I have not even the slightest doubt that we’re talking here about a mistake, technical or otherwise. The army, as long as I’ve known it and I’m fairly critical, never wants to hit UNIFIL forces,” Cohen said.