United Nations peacekeepers discovered evidence in the two abandoned vehicles used by Hizbullah during the abduction of three Israeli soldiers last October that Israel would have “screamed for” if they knew it had existed, a former UN military observer says.
The source, a former officer with the UN Truce Supervision Organization, told The Daily Star that after the kidnapping, UNTSO received instructions to destroy all photographs and written reports connected to the investigation due to the “potential sensitivity of the issue.”
UNIFIL, however, denies that previously unreported “sensitive” material was found in the two vehicles and insists that no reports nor photographic evidence were destroyed.
The source said that Observer Group Lebanon, a part of UNTSO, was informed late on Oct. 7 last year, hours after the abduction, that two vehicles had been found abandoned between Kfar Hamam and Kfar Shuba. Indian UNIFIL troops secured the site overnight, and an OGL team was instructed to carry out an investigation into the two vehicles, a white Nissan Pathfinder and a dark green Range Rover.
The vehicles were abandoned after the Nissan, which had been traveling too fast, missed a turn and hit an embankment. The Range Rover, the engine of which was still running when it was found, had lost a tire rim.
At first light on Oct. 8, an OGL team reached the scene. The team was under instructions to take photographs, a routine procedure in UN investigations, but not to touch the contents of the two vehicles until military engineers had ensured that neither was booby-trapped.
However, there were some “jurisdictional” problems over whether UNTSO or UNIFIL was responsible for the investigation. In a move that “contravened safety and common sense,” the OGL team and Indian UNIFIL soldiers began removing equipment from the two cars, despite the fact that neither vehicle had been safety-checked by military engineers.
The equipment known to have been on board included weapons, a radio set, explosives, a UN sticker, a UN registration plate and two plain green Irish Army uniforms, one large and the other small and both out-of-date. The Irish Army switched to standard NATO-issue camouflage uniforms in 1999.
But the source revealed that there was other equipment in the cars which was deemed “extremely sensitive.”
He refused to describe the equipment “through some lingering loyalty to the UN … Suffice to say that if the Israelis had known about it they would have been screaming for it as it contained current and relevant information that could have been easily linked to the incident.”
Despite the source’s refusal to specify exactly what was found, his additional comments indicated that the extra material could well have consisted of one or more mobile phones.
“Nearly every young man in Lebanon, and Israel, carry and use them,” he said.
“The information that may have been gained from this equipment would have been relevant in the immediate to short term,” the source said. “I doubt whether it would now be current or relevant, but there is a remote possibility.”
As for the known UNIFIL paraphernalia found in the vehicles, the source said that none of it had been used by Hizbullah.
“The UN stickers still had the tape covering the adhesive backing in place and had not been used,” he said. “The UNIFIL registration plate was freshly painted and had not been screwed onto the car. The uniforms had not been recently worn as they did not have any traces of body odor.”
The source was also able to lend some support to a Daily Star report last November which quoted an Indian officer as saying that the back of the Range Rover had been soaked with blood.
“There appeared to be a great deal of blood,” the source said, but cautioned that “a little bit of blood can look like a lot.”
“The opinion of the Indian officer (quoted in The Daily Star article) is one shared by many who viewed the scene,” the source said, “but (heavy blood loss) cannot be confirmed.”
Furthermore, the blood may not have come from the Israeli soldiers as it is not known for certain whether the three captives were borne away in the Nissan and the Range Rover.
“There were a lot of Hizbullah vehicles on the road that day running decoy and sending out messages,” the source said. “Whether the two vehicles found in the vicinity of Kfar Shuba had anything to do with it (the kidnapping) or were part of the decoy we will probably never know, but whoever left these vehicles left in a hurry.”
The more sensitive equipment was removed from the abandoned vehicles by the OGL team despite the objections of the Indian troops and taken to the UNTSO post in Khiam, where it was catalogued and placed in a secure area.
The Nissan and the Range Rover were towed away by Indian peacekeepers. Hizbullah members intercepted the convoy and, after a stand-off, the vehicles were handed to the fighters.
Meanwhile, a UNIFIL helicopter arrived at Khiam from Naqoura carrying a “senior UNIFIL officer and an UNTSO officer.” The sensitive material was taken to Naqoura, where, the source believes, it was locked in a safe prior to being handed back to Hizbullah.
In the days following the kidnapping, senior UN staff “realized the potential sensitivity of the issue and ordered that any photos taken and reports written about the incident be destroyed.”
“I can confirm that this was done on the UNTSO side of the house,” the source said.
However, UNIFIL spokesman Timur Goksel denied that there was any extra equipment contained in the vehicles other than the items made public at the time. He added that it was “practically impossible” for UNIFIL headquarters to have been unaware of any extra “sensitive” equipment. No reports or photographic evidence were destroyed, he said.
“Nothing was destroyed,” Goksel said. “I have never heard anything like this until now. I think this guy has been watching too many movies.”
But the source said he could “confirm along with at least four other people that the order was given to destroy evidence.
“This may have been an UNTSO order, but it came downhill fast,” he said.
“Goksel may be speaking from a UNIFIL-only perspective … He may not have been fully informed of the details of all the equipment recovered. Certainly UNTSO direction from the headquarters in Jerusalem was to destroy” the reports.
Asked why such instructions would have been issued, the source said that “I think the order was given to protect the UN’s position.
“Some of the photos may have inadvertently given away something to the other side,” he added. “The order was made with all the right intentions … If we can’t use the evidence in an objective manner and it may be inflammatory then let’s dispose of it.”
The source insisted that the actions of UNIFIL and UNTSO in regard to the events surrounding the kidnapping were “handled appropriately.”
“Ultimately, the UN did not interfere with Hizbullah conducting this operation, nor did it prevent in any way the IDF’s (Israel Defense Force) effort to recover their people,” the source said. “Both sides made mistakes and the UN was blamed to decrease the damage.”