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Copyright 2001 Jerusalem Post
Jerusalem Post

July 8, 2001

HEADLINE: UN official says video cover-up allegations unfounded

BYLINE: David Rudge

HAIFA (July 8) - The initial denial by senior UN officials of the existence of any footage taken of, or around the time of, the kidnapping of St.-Sgt. Benny Avraham, St.-Sgt. Omar Suwayed, and Sgt. Adi Avitan on October 7 near Mount Dov - which led to allegations of a cover-up by top Israeli officials - was apparently due to the fact that the UN officials were unaware of the existence of any film.

Jean Marie Guehenno, UN undersecretary for peacekeeping, told reporters in New York on Friday that the issue of video footage was first officially brought up in March, by Israel's Ambassador to the UN Yehuda Lancry. Lancry said the UN had denied having further information that could shed light on the condition of the kidnapped soldiers.

The UN was again asked about the matter May 29, but Guehenno himself learned only June 6 of the video film brought to UN headquarters by then-outgoing UNIFIL force commander Maj.-Gen. Seth Kofi Obeng.

Guehenno said he was told that the tape had no information that could shed light on the circumstances of the abduction or the condition of the soldiers. Nevertheless, he asked to review it and then requested that it be seen by experts to determine whether it contained any information of humanitarian value.

He said that on June 27, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told visiting UN Middle East envoy Terje Larsen that a videotape did exist, which Larsen denied because he knew nothing about it.

"As soon as we learned that Mr. Larsen had unwittingly misled the defense minister, I called Israel's ambassador to the UN to make clear the facts and to ensure that the UN would continue to have frank and open relations with Israel," said Guehenno, reiterating that the tape provided no information about the abduction or the state of the victims.

Nevertheless, in view of the humanitarian nature of the issue and despite the UN's duty to protect the confidentiality of its internal documents and its obligation towards the security of its personnel, it was decided to consider Israel's request. "There are also important considerations of impartiality which would be breached if we were to give sensitive information about one side to the other," said Guehenno, adding, "At the same time, we understand the plight and anxiety of the families [of the hostages] who want to know as much as possible."

"In view of these conflicting considerations, and although we continue to believe that the tape does not add anything to what has already been made public about the circumstances of the abduction and does not shed light on the condition of the abductees, we have decided to offer both the government of Israel and the Lebanese authorities an opportunity to view this tape - but with the faces of non-UN personnel obscured.

"We believe that the humanitarian considerations put forward by the government of Israel warrant this exception to the principle of confidentiality, but that security considerations also require that some precautions be taken," he said, meaning that allowing Israel to see the faces of Hizbullah gunmen would be tantamount to giving away intelligence information, thus jeopardizing UN personnel in Lebanon.

In response to questions, Guehenno denied the existence of other UN-filmed footage, but stressed that he could not rule out the possibility of other photographic material that related to the incident itself.

Some security officials in Israel have maintained that the abduction was most likely observed by Indian troops in a UNIFIL position overlooking the abduction site. There were unconfirmed reports that UNIFIL soldiers had seen vehicles approaching the scene beforehand, and had informed their superiors.

These allegations were categorically denied by UNIFIL spokesman Timur Goksel. "As the abduction was taking place, there was a lot of smoke and, simultaneously, the area came under a sustained mortar barrage," Goksel said yesterday. "UNIFIL soldiers were immediately ordered to head for their bomb shelters. There was no sighting whatsoever of the vehicles that were allegedly used in the abduction, because the shelling continued for over half an hour.

"The first sighting of the vehicles was when they were found abandoned by UNIFIL troops about five hours later, inside Lebanon and some 10 kilometers from the actual scene of the abductions. No reports of any sightings were made at the time of the abductions.

"Everybody knows that for the three months prior to the incident, three Hizbullah members who were apparently unarmed had been sitting in the area and had become part of the local scene. They were also seen by IDF patrols two or three times a day, and their presence did not signal anything unusual.

"There was certainly no contact at any time between UNIFIL and the kidnappers, and any allegations of collusion or cooperation are completely baseless. UNIFIL has not conducted any form of cover-up over this issue.

"It should also be recalled that all the relevant information was made public immediately after the discovery of the vehicles," said Goksel.

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