18 April 1996


18 April 1996

Press Briefing



Sylvana Foa, Spokesman for the Secretary-General, told correspondents at today's noon briefing that Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali had learned with shock and horror of the shelling of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) position near the village of Qaana in southern Lebanon. According to reports from UNIFIL, 560 people from the area were sheltering in the headquarters of the Fijian battalion when the shells exploded. The Israeli shelling killed about 60 people, according to the latest figures, and wounded 100 others, including three Fijian peace-keepers. The Secretary- General deplored and condemned this shelling in the strongest possible terms. He was dispatching his senior military advisor, Major-General Frank van Kappen (Netherlands), to conduct an immediate investigation into the shelling. He would be leaving as soon as possible.

Ms. Foa said that United Nations Headquarters had been in contact with the UNIFIL Force Commander, Stanislaw Wozniak, who was in the region, and he had confirmed that about 15 minutes before the Israeli shelling, Hezbollah forces had fired two Katyusha rockets and 8 mortars from a position about 300 metres from the Fijian headquarters. According to the Department of Peace- keeping Operations, it was typical guerilla tactic to hide behind a civilian position. Major General Wozniak was in direct contact with the Israeli commander in northern Israel, General Levine, to avoid this ever happening again. The UNIFIL had not been aware that there was a Hezbollah position about 300 metres away. The UNIFIL positions in southern Lebanon were swamped with about 5,200 civilians seeking refuge.

Over the past few days, Major General Wozniak had repeatedly and strongly objected to Israeli commanders about the increasing number of air and artillery attacks close to UNIFIL positions, Ms. Foa continued. According to the Israelis, they had strict orders to avoid any casualties to UNIFIL and they had been using precision weapons to hunt the Hezbollah who, they believed, had been firing from locations near UNIFIL positions. Several recent "incidents" that had come too close to United Nations positions had been termed "accidental" and had been blamed on equipment failure. The Israelis had been given the precise locations of all UNIFIL positions and the precise locations of all humanitarian convoys moving through the area.

There were 4,568 troops serving in UNIFIL from nine countries -- Fiji, Finland, France, Ghana, Ireland, Italy, Nepal, Norway and Poland. Major General Wozniak has been serving as Force Commander since April 1995, Ms. Foa said. Since UNIFIL began operations in 1978, 203 soldiers had been killed, most of them in the early stages of the mission.

The Secretary-General was appalled by the terrorist attack in Cairo today, which killed 18 people and injured at least a dozen more, Ms. Foa continued. He condemned terrorism in all its forms and urged an end to wanton slaughter as a means to achieve political ends. The Secretary-General expressed his condolences to the families of the victims.

Referring to the shelling of UNIFIL, a correspondent said the key question was one of intent. Initial reports quoting United Nations forces on the ground said the camp had been subjected to fierce Israeli artillery fire suggesting it was being targeted. United Nations Headquarters was saying that the five shells that slammed into UNIFIL were strays, he said, and asked for Ms. Foa's initial analysis of intent. She replied that the United Nations had received two different figures. Either five or six 155 mm shells had hit the compound, totally collapsing one of the buildings where people were sheltering. That was why the Secretary-General was sending General van Kappen to conduct an investigation. Whether or not it was an accidental firing or an equipment failure and what the intent was would have to be determined, she added.

Another correspondent asked whether the identification of those who sheltered in the UNIFIL area were checked to see if some of them might be involved in Hezbollah terrorist operations. Ms. Foa replied that in a guerilla war, people did not carry identity cards saying "I am a guerilla, I am a terrorist, I am a fighter, or whatever". It was very difficult to separate guerillas from civilians, she said.

Would it be correct to say that the Israelis were out to get the Hezbollah position near the UNIFIL Headquarters? a correspondent asked. Ms. Foa said that could be a possibility. However, the precise location of the UNIFIL headquarters, which had been there for years and years, was known to all sides. "Whether or not Hezbollah was sheltering behind a bunch of civilians, which is a disgrace, is one thing. However, it was known what was in that compound", she added.

What did she mean by the Hezbollah position? Did they have artillery there? a correspondent asked. Ms Foa said the positions were very mobile. "People come in with a few rockets, they set it up, it takes them 30 seconds and they fire." The rockets and the 8 mortars were fired from a position that might not be fixed but could be held for three minutes and then no longer held, she added. But that position was evidently about 300 metres north of the UNIFIL compound.

A correspondent asked whether the United Nations was going to demand that the Hezbollah or the Lebanese Government stay away from the UNIFIL compound. Ms. Foa replied "We have been trying that for quite a long time. We have been asking people to stay away from civilian positions. We have 5,200 civilians who have taken refuge in our compounds and these people are

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there because they are scared. They should not be attacked and they should not be used as a shelter to launch attacks."

Turning to other matters, Ms. Foa said the Secretary-General met this morning with the Permanent Representative of Belarus, Alyaksandr Sychou, and the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation, Sergey V. Lavrov. They had briefed the Secretary-General about the treaty on the formation of a community between the two States which was concluded on 2 April, its various features and that it would have to be ratified by the two countries' Parliaments.

Meanwhile, the Secretary-General would be going to Moscow for an official visit between 15-17 May, to hold a dialogue with Russian Federation officials. Ms. Foa added that she would soon make more information available about the trip.

The Security Council was briefed this morning by Under-Secretary-General Chinmaya R. Gharekhan on the shelling in southern Lebanon, Ms. Foa said. It was now holding consultations on Rwanda and the status of the United Nations political office there, the withdrawal of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) and the question of the flow of arms into the Great Lakes region.

Ms. Foa then announced that today, at 2 p.m., the Permanent Representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Muhammed Sacirbey, would address the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA).

The Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Liberia, James Jonah, had arrived in Monrovia to assess the situation on the ground and begin a dialogue with the faction leaders, she continued. Right now, the situation in the capital appeared to be relatively calm but was still very, very tense, with skirmishes reported in different areas of the city. The United Nations was "doing better" in getting food and help to people who needed it desperately.

A second shipment of food from the World Food Programme (WFP) had arrived in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea with 8,265 tons of rice, including 1,000 tons shipped from Thailand by the non-governmental organization Caritas. The WFP was expecting a third shipment of 5,750 tons to arrive in a couple of days. The food would go to 918,000 people in five different provinces who were still vulnerable and suffering from lack of food because of floods in the country last year.

Tomorrow, a press conference would be held in room 226 at 11 a.m., to announce detailed information on the results of the resumed fiftieth General Assembly session on Public Administration and Development.

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Ms. Foa said that on a happier note, the crew of the second space- shuttle MIR docking mission, STS-74/Atlantis, would visit Headquarters on Monday, 22 April. The astronauts and cosmonauts would present the Secretary- General, at a noon-ceremony in the Trusteeship Chamber, with a flag and treaty scrolls that they had carried with them into space in November 1995. She reminded correspondents that the Secretary-General had chatted with the space crew during their voyage. There would be a 15-minute video of highlights of the space mission and a photo opportunity with the Secretary-General. Ms. Foa added that she would let correspondents know tomorrow if the press could attend the ceremony. If they could, the noon briefing would either be postponed or, barring major developments, cancelled. The press should be invited when astronauts come down to earth, she added.

In reply to a question on when Major-General van Kappen would be leaving for southern Lebanon, Ms. Foa said that she did not have his schedule yet. He had been informed very early today that he would be leaving and she would find out later about his flight schedule.

Did Hezbollah fire from positions about 300 metres from the UNIFIL headquarters? a correspondent asked. Ms. Foa replied that was the understanding. Right now, the UNIFIL commanders on the ground were seriously preoccupied with other matters and were still searching for survivors. A whole building had collapsed and they were examining the wreckage. According to initial reports this morning, shortly after 1400 hours, local time, 155 mm shells had exploded inside the headquarters of the Fijian battalion. The UNIFIL Force Commander then confirmed earlier reports, that about 15 minutes before the shelling, two Katyusha rockets and 8 mortars had been fired from a position about 300 metres away from the Fijian headquarters.

Would there be a formal protest delivered to the Israeli Government or would it wait until Major-General van Kappen returned? What were the diplomatic motions? a correspondent asked. Ms. Foa said she imagined the United Nations would want to know first of all exactly what happened, as soon as things calmed down. The commanders on the scene were still busy dealing with the wounded. The United Nations did not even have exact casualty figures yet.

Here at Headquarters, didn't the Secretary-General feel confident at this point to take a judgement on whether it required a protest? the correspondent then asked. Ms. Foa replied that the Secretary-General had condemned the shelling in the strongest possible terms. "As to what happened, we are going to have to wait for the results of the investigation", she added.

Another correspondent asked if five or six 155 mm rockets had been fired. There were two different reports from two different commanders, Ms Foa answered. One said five 155 mm artillery shells another said six. "I don't know how many of you have been under an artillery shelling -- but sometimes it

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is difficult to count exactly", she said. By the end of today more information would be available. Right now, UNIFIL soldiers were concerned with the wounded and others who needed help. It was not easy to get over 100 people to a hospital that was miles away.

In reply to another question, she said she believed the wounded were being taken to a hospital in Tyre.

A correspondent asked what formal lines of communication did the United Nations have with the Hezbollah to ask them not to use United Nations operations as a cover? Ms. Foa said the United Nations was in the same position as the Lebanese Government in this situation. Guerillas made their own rules. The Secretary-General and the Security Council and other places in the Secretariat were in constant contact trying to get the situation settled so that the killing would stop.

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For information media. Not an official record.