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Israel under fire for killing UN monitors
BEIRUT: Israel sought Wednesday to limit the diplomatic backlash over its killing of four UN observers in Lebanon, with Israeli Premier Ehud Olmert calling UN chief Annan and conveying his "deep sorrow."
But he expressed shock at Annan's suggestion the attack was deliberate.
This came as Ireland demanded an explanation after the top-ranking Irish Army officer in Lebanon complained Israel had ignored repeated warnings that its forces were in danger of hitting UN observer posts.
A statement from Olmert's office said the premier would order an investigation, but "the premier said he would never fathom the thought that the mistake that was made would be categorized by the UN as an action that was done intentionally."
Annan had demanded Israel probe the "apparently deliberate targeting" of the UN post in the village of Khiam Tuesday.
The Irish government summoned Israeli Ambassador Daniel Megiddo a day after the UN observers were killed - within hours of six warning calls from Lieutenant Colonel John Molloy, according to well-placed Irish sources.
Molloy, the top Irish officer in the UNIFIL peacekeeping force in South Lebanon, spoke Wednesday morning to Defense Minister Willie O'Dea and the commander of Ireland's army, Lieutenant General Jim Sreenan.
Two well-placed sources, one military and one in the government, said Molloy complained he had called Israeli military liaison officers six times to point out that Israeli shellfire and aircraft munitions were landing dangerously close to more than one UN installation, including the one that suffered a direct hit Tuesday night.
Separately, an initial UN report Wednesday said its personnel made 10 warning calls in total before the attack.
The White House on Wednesday called the deaths "horrible" but said there was no sign that they were deliberately targeted.
China condemned the air raid, in which a Chinese national was killed, and summoned Israel's ambassador in Beijing to demand an apology.
The official Xinhua news agency said the other three observers were from Finland, Austria and Canada.
Israel has offered its regrets and condolences for the deaths of four UN observers, Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay said Wednesday, confirming one Canadian was among the dead.
While in Rome for emergency talks on the Lebanon crisis, MacKay told broadcaster CTV the incident was a "tragic loss of life of four peacekeepers, including a Canadian."
"I spoke this morning with the Israeli Foreign Minister [Tzipi Livni]. She expressed her sincere condolences and regret for this incident. We are still awaiting further details as to what took place," he said. "There's conflicting reports."
UN officials said the air strike flattened the building housing the observers.
Lebanese security sources said three of the bodies had been dug out of the rubble.
Fifty of the victims' former comrades from the Indian contingent of UN Interim Forces in Lebanon [UNIFIL] were desperately bidding to extract the remaining corpse with their hands or using improvised shovels, a source said.
The bodies of the three soldiers were taken out some hours after the Israeli raid that destroyed their three-story building in Khiam, equipped with a bomb shelter, which had served as their post.
Attempts to bring in a bulldozer were in vain but the Lebanese security source said that Israel had agreed to cease its bombardment to allow the recovery operation to continue.
"[This] attack on a long-established and clearly marked UN post at Khiam occurred despite personal assurances given to me by Premier Ehud Olmert that UN positions would be spared Israeli fire," Annan said.
The security source said over 30 Israeli raids had taken place in the area of the UN post over the past three days.
Finnish President Tarja Halonen demanded Israel launch an investigation, saying: "Nothing can justify Israel's attack on a UN observer base."
French Ambassador to the UN Jean-Marc de La Sabliere, president of the Security Council for July, said: "We condemn this bombing on a UNIFIL position."
India said one of its peacekeepers had been wounded in the attack and it was considering withdrawing its 600 troops in the existing UN force, indicating the problems that forming a new force might face.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Muslim-majority members Indonesia and Malaysia, condemned Israel's military operations in Lebanon, with Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar saying Wednesday: "I think it is very easy to express deep regret after the event."
Expressing his condolences to the UN chief, Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh slammed the Israeli raid on the UN post as a "barbaric and premeditated" attack that "does not distinguish between child and woman, hospital and international headquarters tasked with preserving peace and security."
"Some day [Israeli] officials will inevitably stand before international courts for trial on charges of war crime," Salloukh said.