Lebanese and Israeli troops exchanged fire on the border on Tuesday in the most serious clashes since a fierce war four years ago, and Lebanon said at least two of its soldiers and a journalist were killed in shelling.
The violence apparently erupted over a move by Israeli soldiers to cut down a tree along the border, a sign of the level of tensions at the frontier where Israel fought a war in 2006 with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
The U.N. urged “maximum restraint” and said it was working with both sides to restore calm, but witnesses in Lebanon reported intermittent Israeli shelling in the area hours after the clashes broke out.
A Lebanese Army officer said the clash started when Israeli troops tried to remove a tree from the Lebanese side of the border.
An Associated Press photo shows an Israeli standing on a crane reaching over the fence that Israel erected to separate the two countries. The fence, however, does not match the border in all places, and the Israeli military said in a statement that the tree was in Israeli territory.
“It was over the fence but still within Israeli territory,” the military spokesman’s office said. He said the tree cutting was coordinated with the U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, UNIFIL.
The military said Lebanese forces opened fire on the troops, who returned fire, followed by an Israeli artillery barrage.
The Lebanese officer said one of the Israeli shells hit a house in the Lebanese border town of Adaisseh. One civilian was wounded in the shelling, he said. A security official also said a Lebanese journalist working for the daily Al-Akhbar newspaper, Assaf Abu Rahhal, was killed when an Israeli shell landed next to him in Adaisseh.
The Lebanese officials all spoke on condition of anonymity under military guidelines.
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman denounced the fighting and urged the Army commander to “confront any Israeli aggression whatever the sacrifices.”
The border has been relatively quiet since the summer 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war that left 1,200 Lebanese and about 160 Israelis dead. Tuesday’s fighting did not appear to involve Hezbollah fighters.
After the 2006 war, the U.N. deployed 12,000-member peacekeeping force, known as UNIFIL, in the area.
Tensions along the border have risen in recent months. Israel claims Hezbollah guerrillas have significantly expanded and improved their arsenal of rockets since 2006. Among other things, Israeli officials have accused Syria and Iran of supplying Hezbollah with Scud missiles capable of hitting anywhere in Israel, a claim Hezbollah has refused to confirm or deny.
Adding to the friction, more than 70 people in Lebanon have been arrested since last year on suspicion of collaborating with Israel.
Mr. Suleiman said the shelling was a violation of the U.N. resolution that ended fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, saying Israeli troops had crossed the U.N.-drawn Blue Line boundary separating the two countries and fired on a Lebanese army checkpoint in Adeisseh.
The Shiite Hezbollah guerrilla movement was not involved in Tuesday’s clash. Hezbollah officials were not immediately available for comment. The group’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, was scheduled to address supporters via satellite at a huge rally south of Beirut later Tuesday marking Hezbollah’s “divine victory” over Israel in the 2006 war.
UNIFIL confirmed that the Lebanese and Israeli armies exchanged fire and urged “maximum restraint.”
“UNIFIL peacekeepers are in the area and are trying to ascertain the circumstances of the incident and any possible casualties,” said UNIFIL spokesman Neeraj Singh. “Our immediate priority at this time is to restore calm in the area.”