Lebanese army ignored warning from Hizbollah

Incident that killed helicopter pilot was 'completely avoidable'.

BEIRUT // The 2008 incident in which a Hizbollah fighter opened fire on a Lebanese army helicopter in south Lebanon, killing the pilot, could have been avoided if the army command had passed on repeated warnings from the resistance group, according to officials from both the military and Hizbollah.

"Hizbollah sent repeated messages to the LAF high command warning them not to use that area of south Lebanon for training because it was close to a sensitive command centre used by the group," according to one high-ranking Lebanese officer, who under Lebanese law cannot allow his name to be used. "After three warnings were ignored - the people who received the information did not act to get it into the hands of the officers who needed to know that area was off limits - a completely avoidable incident tragically took the life of an army officer."

The shooting occurred in August 2008 while the helicopter was practicing take-offs and landings on uneven terrain, a specialised skill that pilots need to develop through practise in rural areas. As the aircraft touched down in a field outside of Tallet Sojor, a known Hizbollah stronghold, a 19-year-old fighter heard the sound of the helicopter and later testified he also heard what he thought were other Hizbollah positions opening fire as well.

Mustafa Hassan Moqaddam, now 20, testified last week that he left his post to see a helicopter attempting to land. He said the helicopter was not painted in Lebanese Armed Forces colours and that a glinting sun prevented him from seeing a small Lebanese flag in its tail. As Hizbollah fighters in the area had been recently put on high alert, he then opened fire from about 300 metres away, shooting Capt Samir Hanna, the pilot, twice, immediately killing him. Several Hizbollah military-wing commanders contacted by The National corroborated to exacting detail both the testimony given at the tribunal and the army officer's claim that the army command had been given ample warning to find another site for the training and that the warnings were ignored.

"We told them three times in two weeks that we had installations in the area and a few days after each warning, they would do it again," said one commander, who asked to be identified as Abu Hasan, as he did not have permission from Hizbollah's top command to speak to the media. He cited the nature of the charges against Mr Moqaddam and the unwillingness of the military to take any responsibility for the incident as his motivation to break the group's stringent rules against talking to the media about security incidents.

"The boy [Mr Moqaddam] was doing exactly what he had been taught to do," the commander added. "The resistance in that area was on high alert because there was reason to believe an Israeli operation could be planned. He saw a helicopter, he thought he heard gunfire and he did his job. But now he must face trial while the officers who didn't do their jobs and warn the pilots remain free." The army official agreed with the assessment of the Hizbollah commander.

"They're trying this boy to cover their own mistake," he said. "Who killed Capt Hanna? The boy who did his job or the officers who didn't do theirs?" The officer also confirmed that the military intelligence office in South Lebanon, which liaises with both Hizbollah and the United Nations peacekeeping force along the border, had received three warnings before the fourth, fatal, incident, just as the Hizbollah sources contended.

Multiple attempts to reach the defence ministry, the army high command, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and President Michel Suleiman for comment were ignored or unsuccessful. Another military intelligence officer who has since retired, Col Adnan Gheith, told the local media shortly after the incident that he had personally been told by Hizbollah operatives that the area in question was a "closed military zone", which in Hizbollah parlance means not even the Lebanese army may enter it without permission.

Taimur Goksel, who worked with the UN in southern Lebanon for nearly 30 years and frequently co-ordinated the movements of UN peacekeepers with Hizbollah and the LAF, described the claims made by both Hizbollah and the outraged military officers as "more than plausible". "I spent more than 4,000 hours flying over southern Lebanon in helicopters and every minute of it was terrifying because I just knew the ground below me was filled with young, heavily armed, excitable men with various levels of training," he said. "So we spent major efforts making sure everyone was informed of each other's movements."

Mr Goksel said that miscommunication between the LAF and Hizbollah, who more or less tolerate each other's presence in south Lebanon with varying degrees of co-operation, is a constant problem for numerous reasons. "The Lebanese army is institutionally weak but specific officers can personally be very good co-ordinating with Hizbollah," he said. "The problem is that Hizbollah does not like to make its top commanders easily reachable. So if we were moving around, I'd inform the army, and it would be their job to tell Hizbollah, but we always followed up with our own channels just to make sure."

The army officer also blamed the army's lack of proper communications equipment. "We aren't sophisticated enough on the subtle things, like secure communications lines. Hizbollah has a secure fibre optic network connecting all its major bases. We have telephones. During the [2008] siege of Nahr Bared [refugee camp], we realised that most of our guys were using mobile phones to plan military operations."

Mr Goksel agrees, arguing that even if given the proper information, a Lebanese soldier might face a choice between relaying the important information over an unsecure line, almost certainly monitored by the Israelis, and doing nothing at all. "Imagine a young officer learns that Hizbollah says to stay away from a field because they have intelligence that Israel might attack it," he said. "If that officer only has a telephone that everyone knows the Israelis closely monitor, he'd be committing treason to call his headquarters in Beirut to warn them that Hizbollah thinks an Israeli attack could be coming and to get rid of the choppers. Imagine that choice?"