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Rights group disputes Qana death toll

Israeli military blames bad intelligence, Hezbollah tactics

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A displaced Lebanese woman carries her daughter during a candlelight vigil in Sidon Tuesday.

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BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- Israel's airstrike in Qana earlier this week killed 28 people, and 13 are still missing, according to an investigation by the England-based group Human Rights Watch.

Lebanese official figures still say at least 54 people died, possibly as many as 60.

An Israeli military inquiry into the bombing said that its intelligence on the building hit was wrong, and accused Hezbollah of using civilians as a "shield."

Human Rights Watch said its lower death toll was based on a registry of 63 people who had sought shelter in the basement of the building that was struck. Rescue teams at the time had located nine survivors.

The group's preliminary investigation found at least 22 people escaped, and 28 are confirmed dead.

"Thirteen people remain missing, and some Qana residents fear they are buried in the rubble, although recovery efforts have stopped," the group's report said.

Human Rights Watch also said that 16 of the dead were children.

The airstrike early Sunday leveled a four-story building used as a shelter by Lebanese refugees in the southern Lebanese town.

The Israel Defense Forces said the neighborhood was a launching ground for Hezbollah rockets aimed at Israel and that residents had been warned by radio announcements and leaflets dropped from the air to leave the area.

The day of the strike, Israeli officials called it a tragic mistake, saying forces had targeted Hezbollah positions nearby and not the building.

The strike prompted angry street protests in Beirut and escalated international calls for a cease-fire in the region. The outcry led Israel to conditionally suspend its air attacks for 48 hours.

Though it had targeted other parts of Lebanon in the meantime, Israel resumed airstrikes on Beirut very early Thursday. (Full story)

Meanwhile, the Israeli military inquiry said that intelligence had indicated the building was being used by Hezbollah and was "not inhabited by civilians."

"Had the information indicated that civilians were present in the building, the attack would not have been carried out," it said.

Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz said in the statement that Hezbollah uses "Lebanese civilians as a defense shield between itself and us, while IDF places itself as a defensive shield between the citizens of Israel and Hezbollah's terror."

"That is the principle difference between us," he said.

Lebanese authorities Wednesday reported 603 civilians and soldiers have been killed and more than 2,100 wounded in the three-week-old Israeli military campaign.

Israel's military on Wednesday said 56 people have been killed, including 19 civilians, and more than 580 wounded.

Israel began its operation after Hezbollah militants crossed into northern Israel, kidnapped two soldiers and killed three others on July 12. Since the conflict began, Hezbollah has been firing rockets into Israel from Lebanon.

Qana, 10 miles (16 kilometers) east of the southern Lebanese coastal city of Tyre, was the location of an attack by Israeli forces 10 years ago in which more than 100 Lebanese refugees were killed.

On April 18, 1996, Israeli artillery pounded a U.N. center crowded with civilians, an attack Israel later said was a mistake. At that time, Israel also accused Hezbollah militants of hiding behind civilians.

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