Mideast fighting rises to new pitch

In Rome Wednesday, leaders failed to agree on a plan for an immediate cease-fire.

While the deaths of four United Nations observers in south Lebanon might add to international pressure on Israel to stop its offensive, the ferocity of on-the-ground fighting Wednesday and an increase in Hizbullah shelling makes it unlikely that Israel will soften its offensive anytime soon.

World diplomats who gathered in Rome concluded their talks Wednesday but failed to offer plans for a breakthrough. They said they would work for a "lasting, permanent, and sustainable" cease-fire in Lebanon, but did not achieve unanimity on either an immediate cease-fire – despite a sharp plea from Lebanon's prime minister – or the outline of a proposed multinational force.

"We have to have a plan that will actually create conditions in which we can have a cease-fire that will be sustainable," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Rome. "This is a region that has had too many broken cease-fires, too many spasms of violence."

Wednesday, 14 Israeli troops were reportedly killed by Hizbullah forces as they battled for a key hilltop town in southern Lebanon. Israel has faced fiercer resistance than expected as it advances across the border in its campaign against the Islamic militant group.

The fighting followed a statement by Israel the day before that it planned to create a security zone in the south, controlled by artillery fire and airstrikes rather than patrols, until either a multinational force is deployed or Hizbullah is pushed back in a cease-fire agreement that also cuts off the supply of its weapons.

Efforts also intensified to get aid to the south. A United Nations convoy of 10 trucks left Beirut for Tyre. The UN said it was the first such effort to distribute aid via "safe humanitarian corridors."

The strike that hit UN observers continued to be debated Wednesday. The four killed were members of the Observer Group Lebanon (OGL), part of the UN Truce Supervision Organization, whose unarmed military officers deployed in 1948 to monitor the armistice agreement that ended the first Arab-Israeli war. The group works closely with UNIFIL, the peacekeeping force in south Lebanon. The OGL position, a three-story building with "UN" painted in large black letters, has existed at the southern end of the Shiite town of Khiam since 1948.

In a statement, the Israeli army expressed "deep regret" for the killings of the four UN observers, and said that "it would never intentionally target any UN facility or personnel." An Israeli government spokesman said that while Israel has its differences with UNIFIL, the deaths were a case of a mistaken firing.

Khiam, which sits atop a ridge three miles north of the Israeli border, and the area to the east have been heavily hit by Israeli artillery bombardments and airstrikes since the campaign to crush Hizbullah began. In the past three days, the UN observers reported frequent "firings close," the UN designation for rounds exploding within 300 yards of one of their positions.

Heavy shelling in the Khiam area Tuesday forced the UN observers to go "ground hog," UNIFIL's term for heading to the bomb shelters. At around 1:20 p.m., an Israeli jet dropped a bomb just 300 yards from the UN post. The Israeli Air Force has dropped hundreds of these massive aerial bombs since the war began, each one turning three- or four-story houses into rubble and killing anyone inside.

The OGL observers immediately contacted their operations room at UNIFIL's headquarters in Naqoura to alert them of the close impact. The group then warned the Israeli military that their aircraft were dropping bombs dangerously close to a UN position. The Israelis responded to OGL that they would check the situation and make any necessary adjustments. Yet over the next six hours, Israeli jets dropped another 10 aerial bombs between 100 yards and 300 yards from the UN position, according to a UNIFIL officer.

"The bombs were falling on the heads of our guys for six hours," the officer says. "We kept telling the Israelis that our men had been lucky so far but next time there was going to be a tragedy and could they please correct their targeting. We were begging them to stop."

The fatal airstrike hit the UN post at around 7:20 p.m., with one bomb striking the three-story building.

"One direct hit completely destroyed the three-story building and at least one more bomb hit the position," says Milos Strugar, UNIFIL's senior adviser. By midday Wednesday, UNIFIL rescue teams were still attempting to recover the bodies.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was "shocked and deeply distressed by the apparently deliberate targeting by the Israel Defense Forces of a UN observer post in southern Lebanon."

UNIFIL has a history of being fired on by the Israeli military dating back to its inception in 1978.

Several UNIFIL soldiers were killed and wounded in the 1980s and 1990s by Israeli tank fire, artillery shelling, and airstrikes against their positions and convoys. In the 1980s, UNIFIL troops also found themselves under fire from Palestinians and Lebanese militants who regarded the peacekeeping force as an obstacle to their resistance against Israel.

In April 1996, Israeli artillery shelled the UNIFIL Fijian battalion's headquarters, killing more than 100 Lebanese who were seeking shelter there during an earlier Israeli offensive against Hizbullah. In January 2004, a French OGL officer was killed by an Israeli tank shell.

Israel has long viewed the UN as biased in favor of Arab interests. But Moshe Maoz, an Israeli political scientist who specializes in Lebanon and Syria, says Israel has recently come to view the UN as more evenhanded – such as in UN resolution 1559, calling for Hizbullah to be disarmed – and wouldn't purposely attack it.

"I cannot imagine that Israel, with all the problems it has in the international community already, would target UNIFIL, even if in the past they have cooperated with Hizbullah," says Mr. Maoz, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Israel doesn't have an interest in targeting UNIFIL, especially as Israel is dependent on the UN for future arrangements to end this crisis."

Staff writer Ilene R. Prusher contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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