The Australian — The Nation

Red Cross slams Downer hoax claim

August 30, 2006

THE International Committee of the Red Cross has rebuked Foreign Minister Alexander Downer for relying on an unverified internet blog to claim an Israeli missile strike on one of its ambulances in southern Lebanon was a hoax.

A spokeswoman for the ICRC in Geneva said yesterday there was no evidence to support Mr Downer's assertion that the international media had been duped in reporting that Israel had deliberately targeted the ambulance.

An image of the roof of the ambulance showed what was purportedly an entry hole allegedly made by an Israeli rocket which had pierced the centre of the red cross symbol.

The July 23 incident, in which two ambulances were fired on, injuring six people - including one man who lost his leg in the attack - provoked worldwide condemnation of Israel's apparent direct targeting of an ambulance in breach of the Geneva convention.

Israel apologised for the incident but made no admissions.

The blog site, Zombietime.com, claimed photographs of the interior of the ambulance showed there was not enough damage to have been hit by a missile through the roof, as claimed.

On Monday, in a speech to the National Newspaper Publishers Conference on the Gold Coast, Mr Downer criticised the Australian and international media for sloppy reporting and failing to check facts in their coverage of the Lebanon conflict.

He accused the media of being hoodwinked by Lebanese claims that "Israel had bombed deliberately a (Lebanese) Red Cross ambulance". And he accused "some of the world's most prestigious media outlets", including Time magazine, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Australian of falling for a hoax.

"After closer study of the images of the damage to the ambulance, it is beyond serious dispute that this episode has all the makings of a hoax," he said.

In an internal report, a copy of which was obtained by The Australian, the ICRC claims that on July 23 near the village of Qana, two Red Cross ambulances were "struck by munitions".

Last night, the group manager of the first-aid team for the Lebanese Red Cross, George Kettneh, insisted that two LRC ambulances had been attacked on the night of July 23, near Qana in southern Lebanon.

"I was on duty that night and every ambulance that moved in Lebanon I had to know about," he said.

"I received phone calls from the ambulance drivers and it took us one hour to negotiate a ceasefire through the International Committee of the Red Cross."

Ambulance driver Qassem Shalim was closing the doors of the ambulance when the vehicle was hit. "I am sure the missile was fired from a drone. The blue light was flashing on our roof, the red cross was clear and there was a light on the Lebanese Red Cross flag above me. Everything I said happened did happen," he told The Australian in Beirut.

But yesterday, Mr Downer's spokesman, Tony Parkinson, said the minister was standing by his comments. "Those (website) pictures do not show an ambulance that has been struck by a missile nor do they sustain the argument the ambulance was struck by a missile."

Federal Opposition foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, said Mr Downer needed to come clean on his sources.