Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Firefight Between Israel and Lebanon Leaves 5 Dead

AOL News, Tuesday, August 3rd

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

AOL News
JERUSALEM (Aug. 3) -- Lebanon and Israel traded angry accusations today after a senior Israeli army officer and four Lebanese nationals, including a journalist, were killed in an exchange of fire across the border.

The firefight, the most serious incident since the end of the 2006 war, erupted after Israeli forces crossed a security fence near the border between the Israeli village of Misgav Am and the Lebanese village of Adaysseh.

After weeks of growing tension, due in part to controversies over Hezbollah, there were fears that the incident could erupt into full-scale war. The local commander of United Nations peacekeeping forces dashed to the area and managed to restore an uneasy calm, which appeared to be holding as darkness fell.

Lebanese officials said the Israelis crossed the U.N.-demarcated border and refused to stop when warning shots were fired. A Lebanese army spokesman said the shooting began near Adaysseh after Israeli soldiers attempted to uproot a tree on the Lebanese side of the fenced border.

An Associated Press photo shows an Israeli standing on a crane reaching over the security fence erected by Israel between the two countries. The fence, however, does not run along the border in all places, and the Israeli military said in a statement that the tree was in Israeli territory.

Lebanese officials said Israel responded with tank and helicopter fire at a Lebanese military position in the village, killing three soldiers and a journalist for the Hezbollah newspaper Al-Akhbar. Four others, including a reporter for the Hezbollah TV station Al-Manar, were injured. An Israeli lieutenant colonel was killed and two Israeli soldiers wounded in the firefight.

Israeli officials said its troops were carrying out "routine maintenance" on the other side of a border security fence but within Israeli territory when they came under fire from Lebanese soldiers.

Lebanese sources said the Israelis were trying to erect a surveillance camera on the border fence.

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, a former military chief of staff, urged the Lebanese army to "confront any Israeli aggression whatever the sacrifices."

In a statement issued by his office, Prime Minister Saad Hariri condemned the "violation of Lebanese sovereignty and demands ... the United Nations and the international community bear their responsibilities and pressure Israel to stop its aggression."

moke rises above an Israeli tank moving on its side of the border with Lebanon
Ali Diya, AFP / Getty Images
Smoke rises above an Israeli tank moving on its side of the border with Lebanon, Tuesday, where brief clashes erupted along the tense border.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement that its soldiers were "operating along the Lebanese border in coordination with UNIFIL," the U.N. peacekeeping force deployed in South Lebanon after the 2006 war.

"Israel holds the Lebanese government responsible for the grave incident, and warns of the consequences should these continue," said the Israeli Foreign Ministry in a statement.

Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, the Israel army spokesman, told Israel Radio, "Our forces, in one of our positions, inside our own territory, were carrying out a task that was notified in advance to UNIFIL.

"The area is not disputed and is not claimed by Lebanon or anyone else," he said. "The Lebanese army plainly and clearly opened fire in an unprecedented manner on Israeli soldiers, and our soldiers returned fire. It's a clear provocation by sources within the Lebanese army. It's an action that defies common sense."

Benayahu said the Lebanese army had been infiltrated by "provocative elements" aligned with Hezbollah that might have an interest in raising tensions between the two countries.

Both sides said they would file official complaints with the U.N. Security Council.

Israel has been on maximum alert as Lebanon prepares for the publication of a potentially explosive report on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Leaks suggest the prime suspects in the murder of Hariri, father of the current prime minister, will be identified as senior operatives in Hezbollah.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has warned that indictments against his men for the murder would be "unacceptable." He was due to deliver a speech on the subject this evening.

Andrea Tenenti, a UNIFIL spokesman, said the the peacekeeping force was investigating whose version was correct and added that the important thing was to restore quiet.

"The important aspect of what we've been doing today, our immediate priority at the time, was to restore calm in the area," Tenenti said in a radio interview. He added that the UNIFIL commander had flown to the site and contacted commanders on both sides, asking them to stop all firing in the area.

"The situation at the moment is quiet," he said.

The incident on Israel's northern border came shortly after trouble on other fronts. Over the weekend, a rocket was fired from Gaza on the Israeli town of Ashkelon, prompting Israeli warplanes to bomb several sites in the enclave, killing one Hamas commander. A taxi driver was killed in Jordan on Monday after a missile apparently aimed at the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat fell short of its target.

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