The Israeli army fired an artillery barrage into a U.N. peacekeeping camp Thursday, killing at least 75 Lebanese civilians and wounding more than 100. The attack, which Israel said came in response to rocket and mortar fire by guerrillas near the base, was the deadliest by far in the eight-day offensive in southern Lebanon.
The civilians were among hundreds of local people who had taken refuge in the camp, the headquarters of a Fijian infantry battalion. Most perished when the shells set a recreation center and two prefabricated buildings ablaze.
Israel said the attack was a grave error, but blamed Hezbollah guerrillas for firing on Israel from near the U.N. base.
"My white rubber shoes have turned red from the blood," said a shaken Hassan Seklawi, a Lebanese working as liaison officer for the U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon who arrived at the base shortly after the shells exploded.
"All of my family is dead," sobbed Khalid Awada, 25, one of those at the camp. "I have lost them all, lost them all."
The attack marked a turning point in Israel's air and artillery campaign in Lebanon, which until now has enjoyed nearly unbridled support from the Israeli public as well as from the Clinton administration in Washington.
President Clinton, on arrival in St. Petersburg, Russia, called on both sides to observe an immediate cease-fire, saying it has become "painfully clear" the border conflict must end. U.S. officials announced Secretary of State Warren Christopher will travel to the Middle East on Saturday, breaking off from Clinton's traveling party in Russia in a peacekeeping attempt.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres of Israel, responding to Clinton's call in a CNN interview, said Israel is ready to implement a cease-fire immediately if Hezbollah also agrees to halt its rocket attacks against Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon and towns in Israel. "I think we can negotiate a solution or an agreement without shooting at each other," Peres said. "There is no need for fire in order to reach an agreement."
Hezbollah said before it agreed it wanted to reinstate a 1993 agreement barring the targeting of civilians. "Otherwise, our rockets will be the best reply," a Hezbollah official told Reuters.
For hours after Thursday's attack, smoke and smoldering flames poured from the shattered camp, and Fijian officers who pulled the dead and wounded from the wreckage described a scene of carnage, with many dismembered bodies.
Israel had warned civilians here and across much of southern Lebanon to flee or risk being caught up in its attacks. A U.N. spokesman said Hezbollah guerrillas had launched Katyusha rockets and mortar rounds toward Israel from a site near the camp only minutes before the Israeli bombardment began.
But the spokesman, Mikhal Lindvall, said he could see no excuse for hitting the well-marked United Nations compound, where officers fired red warning flares in vain before taking shelter when the shells began to fall about 2 p.m.
"I never thought I would see a massacre like this," Lindvall said. "It's bad enough when it takes place in a Lebanese village, but to see it in a United Nations camp is truly a tragedy."
Fijian officers said many howitzer shells landed in or near the base over a period of about 90 minutes. That attack was among dozens of strikes that Israel launched Thursday in its bid to suppress the guerrillas of Hezbollah, or Party of God, whose rocket attacks on northern Israel have left thousands of settlers there in a state of terror.
One Israeli air strike Thursday in the village of Nabatiye al-Fawqa tore into an apartment building and left 11 Lebanese civilians dead, including a 4-day-old infant and six other children, according to the Lebanese army.
The village of Qana sits atop rock-strewn hills about five miles east of the southern port city of Tyre.
At the city's largest hospital, where the wounded were taken by ambulance, U.N. helicopter and private vehicles, blood spattered the entryway and emergency-room floors. Doctors who had worked through Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and its offensive here in 1993 said they had never seen so much suffering.
"I saw my sister burning with her child in her arms," said Laila Atwe, a 22-year-old woman who survived the attack but lost 12 family members, including her parents, grandparents and uncles.
None of the Fijian peacekeepers were killed, and only four were wounded. Many were out on patrol, while the remainder sat out the shellings in underground bunkers that they shared with some of the civilian refugees.
But officers said the bunkers were too small to allow most of the more than 850 civilians who crowded into the camp in recent days to take shelter.
Maj. Joseph Sabua, second in command of the 500-man U.N. battalion, said many of those who were killed and wounded had fled instead to the prefabricated buildings and to the recreation center, a 45-by-90-foot wooden structure built in a traditional Fijian design.
Sabua and other witnesses described their shock at emerging from their bunkers about 3:30 p.m. to find the buildings ablaze and dead bodies littering the ground.
"This is just beyond human expression," said Sabua. "I want to pull back and go back to Fiji."
Across southern Lebanon, as many as 5,000 civilians are now encamped in U.N. compounds, U.N. officers said. Scores of thousands of other Lebanese have heeded the Israeli warnings and fled the region altogether.
U.N. spokesmen said that many of those who sought refuge at the base had done so because they feared that they had waited too long to leave the area safely.
Qana was all but deserted Thursday night, but the bright headlights of white U.N. armored vehicles illuminated the posters of proclaimed Hezbollah martyrs that are displayed along the streets. They vividly illustrate the sympathies of a population that like that in the rest of southern Lebanon is overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim.
"My neighbors were all killed," said Moussa Haidar, a middle-aged man who survived the attack from inside the camp and was walking the streets in a daze.
A few miles down the hill in Tyre's hospitals Thursday night, some of the wounded lay awake in shock, their limbs broken, bandaged or severed. Still others had suffered severe burns to their bodies or faces. Doctors said that about half of the wounded were small children, some of whom lay in their beds moaning softly for their parents.
Among them was Ibrahim Ismael, a 7-year-old whose arm had been fractured and who had suffered severe burns on his face, neck and ears. "He keeps asking for his mother," a nurse by his bedside said. "I told him, "Don't worry, she's coming, she's coming.'
The nurse later said privately that the boy, along with at least a half-dozen other children in the hospital, had been orphaned in the attack.
News of Thursday's strike at the U.N. base provoked condemnation by world leaders. U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali "learned with shock and horror" of the killings and dispatched a senior military officer to Lebanon to conduct an investigation, according to a U.N. spokesman. The Security Council called unanimously for an immediate cease-fire.
Israel also was condemned by Jordan's King Hussein, who has emerged as its closest Arab friend following the 1994 peace treaty between the two countries. The king demanded an end to the Israeli bombardment, and the Jordanian prime minister summoned the Israeli ambassador in Amman to lodge an official protest to what he called "a massacre of innocent civilians."
British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind expressed "grave" concern and called on Israel to restrict itself to action that is "measured and proportionate."
This latest tragedy demonstrates how disproportionate the violence has become as Israel presses its campaign _ nicknamed Operation Grapes of Wrath _ to uproot the Hezbollah guerrillas. About 160 people have been killed during the eight-day operation, most of them Lebanese civilians. Hundreds more have been wounded.
No Israeli has died, according to latest reports. Several dozen Israeli citizens have been wounded by Hezbollah rocket attacks.
About 400,000 southern Lebanese have fled their homes in the past week. An estimated 6,000 have sought shelter with the U.N., including those taken in at Qana. In Israel, fewer than 20,000 residents have left their homes.
+ + +
1. Dozens of Lebanese refugees were killed when Israel shelled a U.N. base in southern Lebanon.
2. Eleven people were killed when an apartment building was destroyed by Israeli warplanes.
3. Hezbollah fired more rocket volleys into northern Israel Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
4. Gunmen kill 18 foreign tourists.
Since the operation began:
+ 40,000 southern Lebanese have been driven from their towns adn villages, at least 17,000 people have fleed northern Israel.
+ More than 200 rockets have been fired into northern Israel in the past week.
+ Israeli warplanes have conducted hundreds of air sorties, and artillery batteries have fired thougsands of shells.
+ Beirut has been attacked six times.