Beirut In the rocky hills and isolated villages of southern Lebanon, counting the dead from Israeli airstrikes and artillery has become a dangerous and often imprecise task.
The Israeli bombing of Qana became a textbook case Thursday when a new look at the civilian death toll in this week's Israeli airstrike showed it was about half the initial report.
The numbers of dead have become especially important to Israel and Lebanon, as well as to Hezbollah, in the battle for world opinion. With reported Lebanese civilian deaths running about 20 for each Israeli killed in Hezbollah missile strikes, Lebanon would appear to have the upper hand.
The Qana casualties were re-examined after Human Rights Watch issued a report late Wednesday saying 28 people died in the village Sunday after Israeli jets hit it - not 54 as the New York-based organization initially reported in the immediate aftermath of the attack. At the time, The Associated Press reported 56 were dead.
"I've worked for Human Rights Watch for a decade. This is one of the most difficult conflicts to cover," said Peter Bouckaert, director of emergencies for the organization.
"It's very hard and dangerous to reach many of these places," he said of the sites of airstrikes. "So, we often have to rely on phone calls to the mayor and officials to get this kind of information."
The southern village of Srifa provides another example of the difficulty of getting hard facts. On July 19, Lebanese media reported 25 to 30 people were believed to have been in 15 houses destroyed in an airstrike. Their fate remains unknown, and the casualties have not been added to the AP's count.
Human Rights Watch said it had discovered the discrepancy in the Qana count as part of a larger investigation of all civilian deaths in Lebanon. The bombardment of Qana and pictures of dead children pulled from the wreckage led to an international uproar.
The base line for the Qana death count was a list of 63 people who local officials said had taken refuge in the building that was hit by Israeli jets. After the attack, 27 bodies were taken to the government hospital in the southern port city of Tyre. Nine people were known to have survived, and the remaining 27 were reported dead - buried under the rubble of the three-story structure. That resulted in the Human Rights Watch initial report of 54 dead.
The Lebanese Red Cross gave a figure of 56 at the time, which AP used in its reports. An AP reporter counted 27 bodies on the day of the bombing at the hospital in Tyre.
The Human Rights Watch second look at the figures showed that 28 were known dead - the 27 originally killed and one wounded person who died. The organization was able to account for 22 survivors, leaving 13 people unaccounted for of the 63 people reported in the building at the time of the attack.
The initial toll of 54 included those missing immediately after the attack, but Human Rights Watch now says it does not believe the 13 people who remain unaccounted for were killed.
"Families of the missing aren't sure where those 13 people are. It is possible there still is someone buried under the rubble ... but recovery teams are skeptical" of that, Bouckaert told AP.
When asked about the death toll figures on Thursday, George Kitane, head of Lebanese Red Cross paramedics, also said 28 people, including 19 children, had been confirmed killed. He said the organization had been told bodies remain under the rubble, "but we will need bulldozers for such work."
Civil defense official Abdel-Raouf Jradi, who was in charge of the rescue operation, confirmed Thursday that 27 bodies were taken to the Tyre hospital from Qana that day. All the bodies were identified; they included 15 children younger than 12, including a 9-month-old baby.
The discrepancy in the Red Cross and civil defense figures could not be explained.