U.N. Observers Leave Israel-Lebanon Border
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BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – The United Nations has decided to remove 50 unarmed observers from posts along the Israeli-Lebanese border and relocate them with lightly armed U.N. peacekeepers, a spokesman said Friday.
The decision comes after an Israeli airstrike destroyed one of the posts earlier this week, killing four observers from Austria, Canada, China and Finland.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said Israel appeared to have struck the site deliberately _ an accusation Israel vehemently denies. But a U.N. Security Council statement Thursday expressed shock and distress at the killing of the observers, but avoided any condemnation.
“These are unarmed people and this is for their protection,” said Milos Struger, a spokesman for U.N. peacekeepers. He said the 2,000 peacekeepers in Lebanon have light weapons for self-defense.
The observer mission, known as UNTSO, had kept about 50 observers in four posts along the border. Two posts have already been abandoned: the one destroyed at Khiam on July 25, and a second near the village of Maroun al-Ras, where Hezbollah guerrilla gunfire wounded an observer on July 23.
Staff from the two remaining posts would be relocated at border posts of the peacekeeping mission, known as UNIFIL, Struger said. He would not say whether the move had been completed.
UNTSO _ the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization _ was established in 1948 to observe the cease-fire following the war that followed Israel’s creation.
UNIFIL _ the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon _ was created to confirm Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 1978. It has over 30 observation posts and bases along the border, monitoring and reporting on violence in the region. The two organizations generally work together now.
The recent bloodshed erupted July 12 after Hezbollah guerrillas crossed the Lebanese border into Israel and captured two Israeli soldiers. Israel retaliated with its massive assault on Lebanon, now in its 17th day.
Rescue workers have recovered the bodies of three of the observers killed in Khiam, but the fourth body remains buried in the rubble of the destroyed building. Heavy equipment cannot reach the site due to continued Israeli bombardment, UNIFIL said in a statement.
In the drafting of the Security Council statement, the United States _ Israel’s closest ally _ insisted on dropping any condemnation or allusion to the possibility that Israel deliberately targeted the U.N. post.
The statement made only one reference to the wider Israeli-Hezbollah fighting, expressing the council’s “deep concern for Lebanese and Israeli civilian casualties and sufferings, the destruction of civil infrastructures and the rising number of internally displaced people in Lebanon.”
It dropped a call for a joint investigation into the observer post bombing but called on Israel to take into account “any relevant material from U.N. authorities, and to make the results public as soon as possible.”
Israel has expressed regret for the bombing and stressed that it would never target U.N. personnel.
Speaking to the Security Council on Wednesday, U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Jane Lute said the observer post came under close Israeli fire 21 times, including 12 hits within 100 yards and four direct hits. U.N. officials in New York and Lebanon repeatedly protested to Israel in the hours before a bomb leveled the building and killed the four observers, she said.
On July 17, a civilian staff member for UNIFIL and his wife, both Nigerian, were killed in their home by airstrikes in the southern port city of Tyre, according to the peacekeeping force.