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Israeli Artillery Blasts Camp Where Civilians Took Refuge

By John Lancaster
The Washington Post
BEIRUT, Lebanon

Israeli artillery shells, fired in retaliation for a rocket barrage, slammed into a United Nations compound filled with hundreds of refugees near Tyre in southern Lebanon Thursday, killing about 90 people, many of them women and children, and wounding at least 100.

The blasts of several 155mm artillery shells turned the shelter into a bloody nightmare of dismembered bodies. Lebanese camera teams recorded gruesome images of dead children being zipped into body bags, grief-stricken parents, and hospital floors slick with blood. U.N. relief workers cried and hugged each other for support as they went about their tasks.

An older man pounded his temples and wailed, "God, why did they do this to us? Why did they do this to us? Oh my God. Oh my God."

"I couldn't count the bodies," Mikael Lindvall, a U.N. official who visited the compound shortly after the attack, said in an interview. "There were babies without heads. There were people without arms and legs."

The attack marked a turning point in Israel's eight-day-old 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."

There was no immediate response from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed political party and militia whose membership is mostly from Lebanon's Shiite Muslims.

The shelling at the U.N. installation instantly compounded the price Lebanese civilians have paid during Israel's intensive wave of assaults, designed to punish Hezbollah guerrillas for their attacks on Israeli troops in an Israeli-occupied portion of southern Lebanon and their cross-border rocketing of towns in Israel's northern Galilee region.

In a separate incident Thursday morning near the southern Lebanese market town of Nabatiyah, an Israeli air attack killed 11 people, including a mother, her 4-day-old baby and six other children, according to Lebanese news reports. The death toll from the Israeli campaign now stands at about 150, most of them Lebanese civilians, according to unofficial U.N. and Lebanese estimates. The guerrilla rocket attacks have injured about 50 Israelis, but no one has been killed in Israel.

Israeli officials expressed regret for Thursday's shelling but blamed the tragedy on guerrillas from Hezbollah. In Jerusalem, officials said Israeli gunners were trying to hit Hezbollah fighters who moments earlier had fired Katyusha rockets toward Israel from a position estimated by U.N. spokesmen as lying 350 to 400 yards from the compound.

"We don't want to see any woman, or child or Lebanese civilian killed, but they are the victims of Hezbollah," Peres told reporters.

U.N. spokesman Lindvall estimated the number of dead at 94. Other accounts from Lebanese rescue teams and police around Tyre ranged from 75 to more than 100. The precise total was difficult to establish because bodies, many of them in pieces, were taken to several hospitals.

U.N. officials accused the Israeli gunners of disregarding the safety of the refugees and noted they had repeatedly protested to the Israeli army in recent days after incidents in which Israeli shelling imperiled civilians and U.N. personnel.

After a surge in Hezbollah attacks on the Israeli-occupied border strip and northern Israel in recent months, Israel began its offensive April 11 in an effort to force the Lebanese and Syrian governments to rein in Hezbollah guerrillas. Hezbollah says it is fighting to drive Israeli troops from the Lebanese territory they occupy as what Israel calls its "security zone."