UNITED NATIONS — An apparent discrepancy in the portrayal of events surrounding the deaths of four unarmed U.N. observers in Lebanon threatens to unravel Secretary-General Annan's initial accusation that Israel "deliberately" targeted the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon.
A Canadian U.N. observer, one of four killed at a UNIFIL position near the southern Lebanese town of Khiyam on Tuesday, sent an e-mail to his former commander, a Canadian retired major-general, Lewis MacKenzie, in which he wrote that Hezbollah fighters were "all over" the U.N. position, Mr. MacKenzie said. Hezbollah troops, not the United Nations, were Israel's target, the deceased observer wrote.
A senior U.N. peacekeeping operation official who briefed the press yesterday, however, said that on the day the deaths occurred, the only "known Hezbollah activity was 5 kilometers away."The official's briefing was conditioned on anonymity, but the undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations, Jane Holl Lute, supplied the Security Council with similar information at an earlier briefing yesterday.
"To our knowledge, unlike the vicinity of some of our other patrol bases, Hezbollah firing was not taking place within the immediate vicinity" of the base that was hit Tuesday.
Based on reporting by the U.N.'s peacekeeping chief, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, Mr. Annan alleged in Rome Tuesday that the incident was an apparent "deliberate targeting by Israeli Defense Forces of a U.N. Observer post in southern Lebanon." Although Mr. Annan began to backtrack yesterday, his spokeswoman, Marie Okabe, said he stood by the accusation.
Mr. MacKenzie, who after retiring from the Canadian military became a politician, had a very different interpretation. "I happen to know" the now-deceased Canadian U.N. observer, Major Paeta Hess-von Kruedener, Mr. MacKenzie told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in a radio interview yesterday.
"We've received e-mails from him a few days ago and he was describing the fact that he was taking fire within, in one case, three meters of his position ‘for tactical necessity — not being targeted,'" Mr. MacKenzie said he wrote.
In one such e-mail, obtained by The New York Sun, Hess-von Kruedener wrote about heavy IDF artillery and aerial bombardment "within 2 meters of our position." The Israeli shooting, he added, "has not been deliberate targeting, but has rather been due to tactical necessity."
The correspondence between the trooper and former commander amounted to "veiled speech in the military," Mr. MacKenzie, who once commanded the U.N. troops in Bosnia, told the CBC. "What he was telling us was Hezbollah fighters were all over his position and the IDF were targeting them, and that's a favorite trick by people who don't have representation in the U.N. They use the U.N. as shields knowing that they cannot be punished for it."
A spokesman for the peacekeeping operation department, Nicholas Birnbach, told the Sun yesterday that when the U.N. official told reporters that there was no Hezbollah activity within three miles of the U.N. camp, she was referring only to the Monday incident and not to the time period of several days earlier described in the UNIFIL observer's e-mail.
Mr. Birnbach, however, declined to produce a UNIFIL report that would back up Ms. Lute's assertion that there was no Hezbollah activity in the immediate vicinity of the post, which was manned by three other observers beside Hess-von Kruedener.
Mr. Annan and the peacekeeping official yesterday said they now "accept" Prime Minister Olmert's conveyance of regret over the incident. They also said they accept Mr. Olmert's characterization of it as a "tragic mistake," the official said. Ms. Okabe, however, told the Sun yesterday that Mr. Annan would not retract his assertion that Israel deliberately targeted the post.
Mr. Annan and Ms. Lute yesterday welcomed Mr. Olmert's announcement that Israel would launch an investigation, which "we believe should be done jointly with the United Nations," Ms. Lute said.
France's U.N. ambassador, Jean-Marc de la Sabliere, who holds the Security Council presidency, said yesterday he too would like to see a joint investigation, which he said would be beneficial to Israel, adding credibility to the results.
Israel's deputy U.N. ambassador, Daniel Carmon, told the Sun, however, that while the IDF would welcome "any U.N. input," it did not intend to launch a joint investigation. "We will conduct a thorough investigation and inform the U.N. of the results in detail," he said.
The council yesterday attempted to agree on a statement on the deaths of the U.N. observers, but the American ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, objected to any condemnation of Israel. Mr. Bolton also warned against using the incident as a "backdoor way of getting a cease-fire or other larger political and military questions," he told reporters.
Mr. Annan has called for "immediate cessation of hostilities." During yesterday's council briefing on the UNIFIL incident, Ms. Lute said, "I reiterate" that call.