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U.N. rights chief calls for Gaza war crimes probe

GENEVA (Reuters) - The top U.N. human rights official called on Friday for independent investigations into possible war crimes committed by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip.

Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, singled out the killing of 30 Palestinian civilians in a home in central Gaza that was shelled by Israeli forces, and their alleged neglect of young, starving children whose mothers died in the attack.

“I am concerned with violations of international law. Incidents such as this must be investigated because they display elements of what could constitute war crimes,” Pillay told Reuters in an interview.

A U.N. aid agency reported on Friday that the 30 Palestinians were killed this week when the Israeli army sheltered 110 civilians in a house in the Zeitoun neighbourhood in central Gaza, later hit by shells.

“It cries out for proper investigation,” said Pillay, a former International Criminal Court judge from South Africa.


The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Thursday its rescue team had found four children near the bodies of their dead mothers in Zeitoun, not far from Israeli soldiers.

“There is an international obligation on the part of soldiers in their position to protect civilians, not to kill civilians indiscriminately in the first place, and when they do to make sure that they help the wounded,” Pillay said.

“In this particular case these children were helpless and the soldiers were close by,” she said.

Pillay, speaking earlier to a special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council held on the Gaza crisis, called for accountability for any violations of international law.

Scores of people, including children, had been killed or wounded in “Israel’s totally unacceptable strikes” against clearly marked U.N. facilities sheltering Gaza civilians, she said in a speech. Harm to civilians caused by rockets fired from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel was also “unacceptable.”

The talks came a day after the Security Council adopted a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in the 14-day-old conflict and a withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza. Israel rejected the resolution and pursued its offensive on Friday.

Pakistan’s ambassador Zamir Akram, speaking on behalf of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), denounced Israel’s “unrestrained use of force,” killing of innocent civilians and violation of U.N. safe havens.

“In their totality these constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity,” he declared.

The offensive against Gaza has solid support among Israeli voters who go to the polls in a month. Most back Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s aim of ending years of rocket fire into Israel by Hamas guerrillas that have killed 22 people since 2000.

Aharon Leshno-Yaar, Israel’s ambassador in Geneva, said its offensive was directed at Hamas targets engaged in launching rockets into southern Israel, and not at Palestinian civilians.

The invasion was a necessary measure “in line with Israel’s legitimate right of self-defence and its responsibility to protect its civilians from the scourge of terror,” he said.

Ibrahim Mohammad Khraishi, ambassador of the Palestinian observer mission to the U.N. in Geneva, denounced “a new catastrophe at the hands of the Israeli occupation forces.”

“There are entire families that were liquidated,” he said.

The session, called at the request of Islamic and developing countries backed by Russia, China and Cuba, who enjoy a majority in the 47-member forum, was expected to adopt a resolution censuring Israel when the talks end on Monday.

A draft resolution, presented late on Friday by Arab and African countries and Islamic nations, strongly condemns the Israeli military operation and urges the Jewish state to “stop the targeting of civilians and medical facilities.”

Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Mark Trevelyan