Low-flying jet fighters cause alarm and surprise in Beirut

The sound of jet engines flying rattled the capital, but the aircraft turned out to be from the country's long dormant air force.

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Beirut // Over the past 40 years Beirut's residents have grown accustomed to the ear-splitting sound of Israeli jet fighters, which regularly flew over and frequently bombed targets here. So they could be forgiven for jumping to conclusions when the sound of jet engines flying far lower and faster than any commercial aircraft rattled the capital again on Tuesday morning.

"I almost started packing a bag and headed to a school where I knew the refugees [from South Lebanon] would come," said Souha, an NGO and aid worker. "I mean, the sound of fighter jets that low had to mean the Israelis were attacking again, right?" Actually, no. Except for one short flight last year, it has been more than 30 years since the tiny Lebanese air force deployed its antique 1960s-era Hawker Hunter jet fighters, but on Tuesday they once again took to the skies to practise for the military day parade on August 1.

The problem was that the Lebanese Armed Forces failed to tell anyone about the exercise. "It is no problem, the pilot is training," said a spokesman for the LAF. "We warned all the newspapers and television stations yesterday in a press release." But the media had not received the message and Beirut, in the middle of its best tourist season in half a decade, went into a panic, with visitors from Europe and the Gulf immediately deciding to try to flee the city.

"The Gulf tourists were the worst," said an employee at a luxury hotel. "I don't know how, but it seemed like some had already packed and were trying to flee in under five minutes before we calmed them down." One Lebanese resident of the United States, on a visit for the summer, got into trouble with his wife. "I had promised my family, especially my wife - she is an American - that this summer in Lebanon will be fun, calm and safe, and it is really going good so far," said Karim Jamal, who lives in Texas. "Until this morning. My wife started packing. It sounded like war was about to start at the beginning. Later my brother called me to say not to panic, that it's only the Lebanese army practising for the 1st of August Army day. My first question was, since when does the Lebanese army have war planes?"

Even experienced residents were not amused. "Well now we know it's the Lebanese army, but when I woke up this morning on the sound of war planes I thought Israel is definitely attacking us," said Mazen Omari, 37, an electrician. "I never thought it would be the Lebanese army. I don't remember us having fighters. While it was happening the news did not say anything about what was going on. I'm telling you it was not a normal, easy morning, waking up frightened. All I was thinking about is, 'not another war by Israel'."

A check of the National News Agency and the Lebanese Armed Forces websites showed no statement to warn the population of the manoeuvres despite an army spokesman's insistence that one had been release the night before. About an hour after the planes completed their training, a statement appeared on the NNA site, dated Monday evening, warning residents to expect the manoeuvres on Tuesday morning. @Email:mprothero@thenational.ae