They were killed Tuesday when Israel dropped a bomb on a U.N. observation post on the southern border of Lebanon, provoking U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan into saying he was shocked by the "apparently deliberate targeting by Israeli Defense Forces of a U.N. Observer post in southern Lebanon."
Hours later, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called Annan to express his "deep regret" for the deaths of the U.N. observers.
Olmert said the peacekeepers were killed mistakenly and expressed dismay over Annan's accusation, according to a statement released by his office. The prime minister promised a thorough investigation and said the results would be presented to Annan.
Israel's Ambassador to the U.N., Dan Gillerman, told Annan that "Israel remains committed to protecting the safety and security of U.N. personnel on the ground and is doing its utmost to guarantee that they be able to carry out their mission."
"U.N. blue helmets are in the crossfire and the deaths are an indication of how difficult it will be to have an international military force on the border between Israel and Lebanon, whether it is a NATO force or a U.N. peacekeeping force," says
Annan commented while in Rome, where he and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other international leaders are discussing proposals for ending the fighting that has already claimed more than 400 lives. Key issues include how to disarm Hezbollah and assemble an international peacekeeping force to enforce the peace along the Israel-Lebanon frontier.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Tuesday Israel will maintain a security zone in the south until either a multinational force "with enforcement capability" is deployed on the border or Hezbollah is pushed back in a cease-fire agreement that also cuts off the supply of its weapons.
In other recent developments:
"The truth is - let me say this clearly - we didn't even expect (this) response ... that (Israel) would exploit this operation for this big war against us," Mahmoud Komati, the deputy chief of the Hezbollah politburo, told The Associated Press.
Hezbollah fighters battled Wednesday to stop Israeli forces from capturing a southern Lebanese town, leaving several Israeli soldiers dead, Arab TV stations reported.
Al-Arabiya, a Dubai-based satellite TV channel, said 12 soldiers were killed as Israeli forces tried to gain control of the town. The Qatar-based satellite TV station Al-Jazeera reported that nine Israelis had been killed and 25 wounded.
In Jerusalem, the Israeli military said no more than several soldiers were wounded in the heavy fighting at Bint Jbail, which lies 2½ miles north of the Israeli-Lebanese border.
Israel Radio reported that "at least 10 Israeli soldiers had been hit" in heavy fighting against 200 Hezbollah guerrillas in the town. It did not specify how many Israelis were killed.
A senior Hezbollah official, Mahmoud Komati, told The Associated Press Wednesday that Israeli forces had managed to seize a few points inside Bint Jbail, but had not yet taken the town center.
The Israeli army said several Hezbollah fighters had taken cover in a local mosque.
Hezbollah said "violent confrontations" were taking place between its fighters and Israeli forces attempting to advance toward a hospital in Bint Jbail, which holds the largest Shiite Muslim community in the border area. Hezbollah draws its support from the Shiites.
Fighting has been heavy for days around the border towns of Aitaroun, Maroun al-Ras and Bint Jbail, where Israeli forces are trying to eliminate the guerrillas who have been firing rockets into Israel. The area controls the high ground in the central sector of the Lebanese-Israeli border.
Bint Jbail is a symbolically important town for Hezbollah as it was a center of resistance to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.
Tuesday marked a month since the start of what is now a two-front war between Israel and Islamic militants. On June 25, an Israeli soldier was captured by Hamas militants in Gaza, prompting an Israeli offensive there. Two weeks into that flare-up, Hezbollah snatched the two other soldiers.
Israel and the United States say the ultimate aim is to fundamentally reshape Lebanon to end Hezbollah's presence by the border, strengthen democracy in the country and ensure lasting peace with Israel. In the process, Lebanon has been ravaged, with hundreds killed, nearly a half-million driven from their homes and vast damage to roads and bridges.
The three villages that Israeli ground troops have advanced on - Bint Jbail, Yaroun and Maroun al-Ras, which was seized by soldiers over the weekend - are in a roughly 3-square-mile pocket. Israeli bombardment has also destroyed most Hezbollah observer posts all along the border, U.N. observers say.
Israel suggested that would grow - but the extent was unclear.
Israeli army commanders said Israeli ground troops would not push deep into Lebanon, but instead aim to kill as many Hezbollah fighters as possible and push others away from the border.
"We are very much dealing with the villages and towns close to the border," Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan said. "Our aim is not to occupy the territory."
In one pre-dawn raid, Israeli warplanes destroyed two neighboring houses in Nabatiyeh, which is 16 miles north of Bint Jbail and has been heavily bombarded in the past few days.
In one house, a man and his wife and their son were killed, said the couple's daughter, Shireen Hamza, who survived. Three men died in the other house, she said.
While buried under the rubble for 15 minutes, "I just kept screaming, telling my parents to stay alive until help comes," she said. "My father kept saying to me in a weak voice, 'Shireen, stay awake. Don't sleep.'"