TEL AVIV (May. 25)
Initial findings of the investigation into the deaths of four Israeli soldiers in a friendly fire accident in Lebanon indicate the clash was started when two dozing soldiers were awakened by sounds and immediately opened fire.
The paratroop company involved had divided into two groups, one of which lay in ambush at the top of a hill while the other squad proceeded through the wadi below. The company was searching for hostile guerrilla units in the southern Lebanon security zone.
The two squad commanders were in radio contact as the operation continued through rocky terrain, on a dark night with a thick mist.
At one moment, the lower group arranged to move upwards but strayed in the dark. Instead of climbing directly upwards, as they had indicated by radio, they veered to the side.
Two of the men in the hilltop ambush appeared to have dozed off but woke to the sounds of men clambering toward them among the rocks.
The two opened fire, believing the men below to be guerrillas. They killed one of the approaching soldiers and wounded others.
The squad below, edgy because of a previous report by one of its members that he had seen enemy guerrillas, returned the fire with automatic weapons and hand grenades. The two soldiers who had originally opened fire, and another ambusher, were killed in the short firefight, which lasted only a few seconds.
The two squads were only 20 to 30 feet apart at the time of the clash near the village of Kantara on the northern edge of the security zone — the scene of several clashes with Hezbollah forces in recent weeks.
The paratroop company, plagued by a series of incidents, has now lost nine of its members since their posting to Lebanon at the beginning of April.
A month ago, the company commander, his deputy and another man were all killed in a roadside bomb explosion.
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The soldier pulled lose the magazine of his automatic rifle — making it a matter of chance whether the weapon would fire or not — put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger as his comrades watched.
Psychologists suggested the company members may have been especially edgy because of the previous incidents.
According to reports from Lebanon, Hezbollah activists in the area heard the shooting in the mishap and presumed another “resistance group” was fighting the Israelis.
When Israeli helicopters flew into the area to evacuate the dead, the guerrillas opened fire.
Over a score of Israeli soldiers have been killed during friendly fire incidents in Lebanon and the West Bank in the past two years.
Several medium-rank officers have been disciplined following official inquiry committee investigations. But there have been public complaints that some of the officers disciplined have subsequently been promoted. No senior commanders have been faulted in the inquiries.