(Adds witness account)
By Alastair Macdonald
GAZA, April 17 (Reuters) - A medical examination showed on Thursday that metal darts from an Israeli tank shell that explodes in the air caused the death of a Reuters cameraman killed a day earlier in the Gaza Strip, doctors said.
X-rays displayed by physicians who examined the body of Fadel Shana in Gaza’s Shifa hospital showed several of the controversial weapons, known as flechettes, embedded in the 23-year-old Palestinian’s chest and legs.
Several of the 3 cm (1 inch)-long darts were also found in Shana’s flak jacket, emblazoned with a fluorescent "Press" sign, and in his vehicle, an unarmoured sport utility vehicle bearing "TV" and "Press" markings.
"Fadel seemed to be saying a prayer. Those were his last words," said Reuters soundman Wafa Abu Mizyed, who was wounded in the wrist by one of the darts and began to recollect the incident only a day later, after the initial shock had worn off.
In an interview with al-Jazeera television in February, Shana spoke of his dedication to journalism, saying: "It is impossible to stop me from working as a journalist under any circumstances ... I would either have to die or lose my legs."
Shana was covering events in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip for Reuters on a day of intense violence when 16 other Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers were also killed.
"The evidence from the medical examination underlines the importance of a swift, honest and impartial investigation by the Israel Defense Forces and by the government," said David Schlesinger, editor-in-chief of Reuters News.
"The markings on Fadel Shana’s vehicle showed clearly and unambiguously that he was a professional journalist doing his duty. We and the military must work together urgently to understand why this tragedy took place and how similar incidents can be avoided in the future," Schlesinger added.
There was no word from the Israeli military on Thursday on whether it would launch an investigation.
Asked about the information that an Israeli flechette shell had killed Shana, an Israeli military spokeswoman said: "The Israel Defence Forces do not, as a rule, comment on the weapons they use. But its weapons are legal under international law.
"Flechettes are legal under international law and a petition filed in the (Israeli) Supreme Court against their use was rejected," she added, referring to a case in 2003.
Abu Mizyed said he and Shana were following ambulances that left the scene of an Israeli air strike, when the cameramen pulled over to take some wide shots of the area. An Israeli tank, Abu Mizyed said, was about a kilometre (half-mile) away.
"Fadel put his camera on a tripod and filmed for several minutes," Abu Mizyed said.
Disturbed by a group of children, Shana asked Abu Mizyed to move them away. As he did so, Abu Mizyed heard an explosion behind him. Turning around, he saw Shana and two children -- who also died -- lying in pools of blood.
Video from Shana’s camera showed the tank opening fire. Two seconds after the shot raises dust around its gun, the tape goes blank -- seemingly at the moment Shana was hit.
A frame-by-frame examination of the tape shows the shell exploding in the air and dark shapes shooting out from it.
Several hundred people, including local journalists, marched in Shana’s funeral procession on Thursday. His body was draped in a Palestinian flag and his shattered camera and flak jacket were borne aloft on a separate stretcher.
Mourners held the flags of the rival Hamas and Fatah factions and those of other movements, in what local activists said was a sign of respect for the impartiality Shana and Reuters had shown in their coverage of the Gaza Strip.
Yunes Ramadan Awadallah, one of the physicians who examined Shana’s body, said he suffered multiple lacerations from projectiles, some of which appeared to have entered his chest through his neck and shoulder, severing his spinal cord.
"This tragic incident shows the risks journalists take every day to report the news. All governments and organisations have a responsibility to take the utmost care to protect professionals trying to do their jobs," Schlesinger said.
An Israeli military spokeswoman, Major Avital Leibovich, said there had been clashes in area throughout Wednesday after the three Israeli troops had been killed there overnight.
A military official said: "We wish to express sorrow for the death of the Palestinian cameraman ... It should be emphasised that the area in which the cameraman was hurt is an area in which ongoing fighting against armed, extreme and dangerous terrorist organisations occurs on a daily basis.
"The presence of media, photographers and other uninvolved individuals in areas of warfare is extremely dangerous and poses a threat to their lives."
GENTLE AND POPULAR
Shana, who was unmarried, was a gentle and popular figure among the 15-strong Reuters news team in the Gaza Strip. The bureau was honoured by Britain’s Royal Television Society for its coverage of last year’s factional fighting in Gaza.
Journalists have become casualties on numerous occasions in the Palestinian territories. Media watchdogs estimate that nine have been killed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 2000.
An Israeli soldier shot a Reuters photographer in the leg in Gaza in October. Two Reuters journalists were wounded by an Israeli tank shell in the enclave in 2003.
Also in 2003, one of the most widely renowned Palestinian journalists to work for Reuters, television cameraman Mazen Dana, was shot dead by a U.S. soldier in Baghdad. Six other Reuters journalists have been killed in that conflict. (Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)