Lethal fire was exchanged by Israeli and Lebanese army troops on their countries’ border today. (map from bbcimg.co.uk)
At least three Lebanese, an Israeli battalion commander and a journalist were killed in what was the worst clash in the area since the summer of 2006.
Each side blames the other for the flare-up, trading accusations of violating the United Nations Security Council resolution that underpins the four-year cease-fire.
According to a Lebanese Army spokesman the skirmishes started after Israeli soldiers crossed into Lebanese territory to cut down a tree which was blocking their view in the Lebanese village of Adaysseh.
“We fired in the air, and they responded by firing artillery shells,” said the spokesman, speaking on departmental conditions of anonymity.
On the other side, the Israeli military said its soldiers were fired upon inside Israeli territory, just west of the village of Misgav Am. Israel said its forces were engaged in routine maintenance work in a gap between the so-called Blue Line, the internationally recognized border, and its security fence, and that it had coordinated in advance with the United Nations peacekeeping force in South Lebanon, Unifil.
According to the Israeli military, they returned fire with light arms and also made use of artillery fire. Several minutes later, the military said in a statement, an Israel Air Force helicopter fired at the Lebanese Army Forces Battalion Command Center in Al Taybeh, damaging several armored combat vehicles.
The Lebanese army confirmed to the BBC that three of its soldiers had been killed and four wounded. The al-Akhbar newspaper confirmed that one of its journalists had also been killed.
Israel’s foreign ministry warned Lebanon of “consequences” if violence continued.
“Israel views the Lebanese government as responsible for this serious incident,” a ministry statement said.
Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister condemned Israeli “aggression” in a statement, and said Lebanese sovereignty had been violated.
The Israel Defense Force (IDF) said its troops had been working on its side of the border near the town of Kiryat Shemona, when they received warnings to leave the area.
“The soldiers were on routine activity in Israeli territory, in an area that lies between the ‘blue line’ (the internationally recognised border between Israel and Lebanon) and the security fence, thus within Israeli territory,” the IDF said in a statement.
The IDF said that people in Lebanese army uniform then opened fire on the troops.
The Israelis said two officers had been seriously wounded, before confirming that a senior officer had been killed.
He was named as 45-year-old Lt-Col Dov Harari from Netanya, a reserve commander in the engineering corps.
Maj-Gen Gadi Eisenkot, head of the Israeli military’s northern command, told reporters he believed the incident was “a one-time event”.
Speaking at a base near the Lebanese border, he said : “We received requests and demands from the highest ranks in the Lebanese army to cease fire.”
But he described the incident as a “deliberate ambush”.
Stationed in Unifil, The UN peacekeeping force has urged both sides to show “maximum restraint” following the clash.
To BBC’s Wyre Davies in Jerusalem, the clash is an indication of the tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border.
The incident could have been caused by one of the sides misidentifying the correct location of the border, according to Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.
The day before this exchange, rockets were fired at the Israeli resort of Eilat, with a stray rocket killing one person in the nearby port of Aqaba in Jordan.