UNITED NATIONS - The United Nations said today it asked Israel a dozen times to stop bombing near a UN post in Lebanon in the hours before an Israeli air attack destroyed the position killing four peacekeepers.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan initially referred to yesterday's deadly Israeli strike as the "apparently deliberate targeting" of the Khiam UN observer post.
But he softened his stance after talking with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who said he believed it was a mistake and would order an investigation.
"We await the end of the investigations, and I am grateful for the prime minister for what he has said, and we accept his words," Annan said in Rome, where he was attending a conference on the conflict between Israel and Hizbollah.
Jane Holl Lute, a deputy head of UN peacekeeping operations, told the Security Council behind closed doors there were 21 strikes within 300 metres of the observer post during the six hours before it was completely destroyed.
Twelve of the 21 struck within 100 metres, including four which scored direct hits, Holl Lute said, according to a text of her remarks.
Firing continued during the rescue operation, "despite repeated requests to the Israeli Defence Forces for an abatement," she said. Another UN base came under Israeli fire today as an artillery round fell 10 metres from its headquarters compound in Naqoura, she added.
While there was speculation Israel may have been targeting Hizbollah positions near the Khiam post, Holl Lute said there was no Hizbollah firing coming from near the outpost.
An Irish army officer in south Lebanon warned Israeli forces six times that its strikes threatened the lives of the four observers, Ireland's Foreign Ministry said today.
Lieutenant Colonel John Molloy, the chief UN liaison officer with Israel in south Lebanon, told the Israelis on six separate occasions "that their bombardment was endangering the lives of UN staff in south Lebanon," a Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman said.
"He warned: 'You have to address this problem or lives may be lost,"' the spokesman said.
In New York, Holl Lute and UN Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown telephoned Israeli UN Ambassador Dan Gillerman and his deputy half a dozen times to convey the same message, UN officials said.
"The base is clearly marked, a well-known. well-established position for a generation," said a UN, official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity.
The United Nations still wanted a joint investigation, as Annan requested, despite Olmert's decision to conduct a solely Israeli inquiry, the UN official said.
Gillerman wrote the Security Council today "to express Israel's deep sorrow" over the four deaths and to "categorically deny" the attack had been deliberate.
Separately, Israeli Brigadier General Udi Dekel wrote UN commanders that the deaths resulted from "a tragic operational mistake" and said an investigation was already under way.