The IDF expressed its sincere regret on Wednesday and admitted to accidentally firing a missile and striking a UN base inside southern Lebanon and killing four UNTSO soldiers.
A high-ranking source in the Northern Command confirmed that the IAF had mistakenly fired on the UN building but rejected claims by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan that the strike on the observers was "intentional."
"We made a mistake in identifying the target and thought it was a Hizbullah outpost," the officer said, claiming that over the next few days the IDF would conduct an extensive probe into the incident, following which OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam would write a letter of apology to Annan.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert phoned Annan Wednesday morning and, according to his office, expressed his deep regret over the killing of four UNTSO soldiers in Lebanon. Olmert said it was an accident and he would instruct the IDF to hold a comprehensive inquiry into the event and would share the results with Annan.
The bomb on Tuesday made a direct hit on the building and shelter of the observer post in the town of Khiyam near the eastern end of the border with Israel, said Milos Struger, spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon known as UNTSO.
Four unarmed military observers were in a bunker and the bunker collapsed as a result of the bombing, the UN official said.
Rescue workers were trying to clear the rubble, but Israeli firing ``continued even during the rescue operation,'' Struger said.
Olmert also "expressed his reservations" over Annan's statement Tuesday evening that the Israeli action in Lebanon was deliberate. Olmert said it was "inconceivable that the error that was made would be defined by the UN as an action that seemed deliberate."
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni went further, telling a press conference in Haifa Wednesday that she was "more than disappointed," and that these types of accusations were baseless.
"He knows that Israel has never deliberately targeted UN observers," Livni said. "It's not part of our policy," she said, adding, "during a war these kind of accidents can happen."
"My expectation from Kofi Annan and the Untied Nations is an understanding that we are standing on the same side fighting terrorism and facing the long arm of Iran in the region," she said.
Annan issued a statement Tuesday night expressing "shock and deep distress" over what he called the "apparently deliberate targeting" of the UN observer post.
He seemed to soften the sharp language at a press conference after the Rome conference Wednesday, stressing that in his original statement he said the attack was "apparently deliberate."
"The statement said 'apparently deliberate targeting,'" Annan said, stressing that the word "apparent is important in this."
He said he spoke to Olmert and accepted his "deep sorrow" for the incident, which Annan said that Olmert "definitely believes'' was a mistake that would be investigated.
A UN source, meanwhile, told The Jerusalem Post
that UN military personnel on the ground along the Israel-Lebanon border said that the munitions that hit the UNTSO position were precision-guided.
Furthermore, the source said the strike came after repeated requests by UNTSO commanders to the IDF not to hit that specific position.
The IDF Spokesperson's office told The Post
that the army was looking into the allegations and that it deeply regretted the "tragic death" of the UN personnel.
The UN source said that by hitting the position Israel was "shooting itself in the foot, and sending a very bad signal" to the international community.
"This attack comes at a time when the international community is in discussions with countries about donating troops to form a new force [to send to south Lebanon]," the source said. "This attack plays very badly into that. At the same time as donor countries have to justify to their electorate the idea of sending their sons to this region to put their lives on the line, Israel blows up a UN observation position and kills four of its personnel."
"At a time when [United Nations humanitarian chief Jan] Egeland is trying to establish a humanitarian aid corridor to Lebanon, the situation on the ground could turn catastrophic if soldiers on the ground are not clearly instructed not to do things like this," the source said. "The UN is delighted that the Israeli government has launched an investigation into this incident and awaits the findings of the probe."
AP and Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report