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Israel fires on Lebanese soldiers in retaliation for soldier killing

Shootings raise the possibility of renewed fighting in the area, which has remainded mostly quiet since a month-long war in 2006.

JERUSALEM // Israeli troops shot at two Lebanese soldiers yesterday, hours after a Lebanese army sniper killed an Israeli soldier as he drove along the volatile border, the Israeli military said.

The shootings raised the possibility of renewed fighting in the area, which has remained mostly quiet since a month-long war in the summer of 2006, though an Israeli defence official said Israel had no interest in further escalation.

Relations between Lebanon and Israel are so fraught with tensions that any incident risks sparking a major conflagration. The two have been officially at war since Israel’s creation in 1948. Each country bans its citizens from visiting the other, and there are no direct trade ties between the two.

On Sunday, Israeli soldier Shlomi Cohen, 31, was fatally shot by a Lebanese army sniper near the tourist site of Rosh Hanikra on the Mediterranean Sea, the Israeli military said.

Lebanon’s National News Agency (NNA) confirmed the shooting by a member of the Lebanese army but it was not clear why the sniper had opened fire. In the past, the Lebanese military has opened fire after saying Israeli soldiers had tried to infiltrate into the country.

Defense officials later questioned the sniper about the incident, said a Lebanese security official.

Hizbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla group that waged a war with Israel in 2006, did not appear to be involved in the incident.

Israeli army spokeswoman Lieutenant Libby Weiss said Israeli forces identified “suspicious movement” along the border just after midnight, and shot at two members of Lebanon’s armed forces. The shooting occurred near where Cohen was killed, she said but had no details on the condition of the Lebanese.

Lebanon’s NNA said Israeli troops opened fire on a forested area on the Lebanese side of the border around 1am local time. The news agency did not report any Lebanese casualties. The Lebanese security official said he had no knowledge or information on reports of two Lebanese soldiers shot by Israeli troops.

Israel protested the “outrageous breach of Israel’s sovereignty” with the UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon and heightened its state of preparedness, said Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman.

“We will not tolerate aggression against the state of Israel, and maintain the right to exercise self-defence against perpetrators of attacks,” he said. But he added: “We have no interest in further escalation of violence.”

The Israeli defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, said Israel would be meeting with the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, to request an explanation from the Lebanese army about whether the soldier acted on his own and what it would do to prevent such incidents in the future.

Israel and Lebanon remain enemy countries with no diplomatic relations. Their armies do not communicate directly but in cases of increased tension exchange messages through a UN intermediary. Generally, Israeli army officials and Lebanese army officials sit in adjacent rooms, with UN representatives shuttling messages from room to room.

Since the 2006 war, the border has experienced only sporadic violence. Israel has responded with air strikes and artillery fire following a number of rocket attacks and shootings. In the most serious incident, a high-ranking Israeli officer was killed by a Lebanese sniper in 2010 after Israeli forces tried to cut down a tree along the border. Israel responded with artillery fire, killing two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist.

The 2006 war broke out after Iranian-backed Hizbollah guerrillas crossed into Israel and captured two Israeli soldiers. The ensuing month-long conflict killed about 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis.

Israel and Lebanon have fought several wars in the past. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon with the stated intention of driving Palestinian guerrillas out of the south. The Israeli military battled halfway through the country into Beirut and occupied southern Lebanon until 2000.

The Lebanese are banned from calling or travelling to Israel or having contacts with Israelis. Such an offence is punishable by anything from few weeks to life in prison with hard labour, depending on the kind and level of contact. All Israeli products are banned in the country, including Israeli films.

The two nation’s carriers do not fly over each other’s airspace.

* Associated Press

Published: December 16, 2013 04:00 AM

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