Israel retracts rocket claim


Wed 13 October, 2004 18:38

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Israeli army has retracted an accusation that Palestinian militants in Gaza used a U.N. ambulance to transport a rocket for firing at Israel, officials say.

The UNRWA agency said it needed a full public apology to safeguard the security of U.N. staff operating in the area.

Israel raised a stir at the United Nations last week with its accusation against the Gaza-based U.N. agency which hinged on a blurry video recorded by a military drone aircraft.

An army statement said an inquiry concluded "the nature of the object loaded on the vehicle cannot be determined with certainty. Thus the determination that the object loaded was a Qassam rocket was too unequivocal and made in haste."

UNRWA said the Israeli statement was insufficient.

"We are asking for an apology that is just as well publicised as the original accusation," spokesman Paul McCann said. "Not for the sake of wounded pride but to assist in the safety of our staff."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appealed to Israe l to handle future complaints "through normal diplomatic channels .... so that the matter may be properly investigated".

Israel originally asserted that a long, thin object that was photographed being loaded into a vehicle with U.N. markings was a Qassam rocket, a crude type of weapon frequently fired by Palestinian militants into southern Israel.

UNRWA said the object was a stretcher, not a rocket.

The Israeli army on October 5 backed away from the accusation and removed the video from its Web site, saying doubts had been raised that warranted further investigation.

An Israeli security source told Reuters then the fact that one person had lifted the object "suggested it was not heavy enough" to be a rocket.

Israel is pressing a two-week-old offensive in northern Gaza, in which 96 Palestinians, among them about 54 militants and the remainder believed to be civilians, have been killed.

The offensive was launched after rocket fired by militants killed two Israeli children in a border town.

The amb ulance spat added a chapter to the history of strained relations between the U.N. and Israel, which sees the world body as a bastion of anti-Israel bias and is especially suspicious of UNRWA's activities in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel has accused UNRWA of ignoring use of its vehicles and facilities by militants waging a four-year-old revolt. UNRWA denies this and accuses Israel of wanton destruction of Palestinian homes, an allegation Israel rejects.