Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Warplanes perform mock raids over several parts of country

Condemnations flow as Jewish state commits 'intensive' airspace violations
Warplanes perform mock raids over several parts of country

By Rym Ghazal
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Israeli warplanes committed their "most intensive" violations of Lebanese airspace since the July-August war on Tuesday, conducting mock raids over Beirut and several other parts of the country. A Lebanese Army source told The Daily Star that eight Israeli fighter-bombers entered Lebanese airspace from the south and swept all the way to the capital, "lingering over the southern suburbs in the most intensive violations since the war" that ended on August 14. The latest violations were met with condemnation from France, the European Union, and the United Nations, as well as Lebanese politicians. French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei said the overflights are "contrary to the spirit" of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the war. "We consider that these overflights constitute a violation of Lebanese sovereignty," said Mattei, echoing previous comments by French officials. "We call on Israel to put an end to these overflights and we call on all partners to refrain from any act that could maintain or increase tensions," he added at a regular press briefing. France, which currently leads the UN peacekeeping force in South Lebanon, has said it might open fire on intruding aircraft. Spanish Defense Minister Jose Antonio Alonso and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana called for Israel to stop flights over Lebanon. Alonso and Solana "asked clearly" for the Israeli government to end its air force's operations over Lebanon, they said at a joint news conference in Madrid. Solana also called on Israel to stop the air operations as they risked derailing the UN-brokered cease-fire. "I spoke with Israeli authorities, saying they should stop operations that, in our judgment, and based on the resolution, put a solution at risk," said Solana. "Everyone has to comply with the resolution. Israel also has to comply. It has to comply in the strictest way," he said. European Union spokeswoman Emma Udwin said: "We want to see the full implementation" of the resolution. "We think that is also very much in Israel's interest."

In the heaviest show of aerial power since the August 14 cease-fire, security sources said the Israeli jets swooped down at least six times to roar low over the southern suburbs, a Hizbullah stronghold that was heavily bombarded during the 34 days of war. "The planes kept releasing flares as a precaution to divert any possible missles as they flew low over Lebanon," said the military source. The Daily Star correspondent in the Chouf area witnessed the showers of flares dropped by the planes over the predominantly Druze area. The overflights began at 9:10 a.m. and ended at 10:10 a.m. on Tuesday morning, when "four of the eight Israeli planes flew over Southern Lebanon, and the other four went north and flew over the Bekaa, Mount Lebanon, Beirut and Chekka," said an official statement released by the Lebanese Army Command. The army said their gunners fired "anti-aircraft weapons at the Israeli planes in the South." Israeli daily Haaretz reported on Tuesday that the Israeli military refused to confirm that its planes had flown over Beirut, saying it does not give operational details. Israeli air raids during the war destroyed large districts of the southern suburbs and several towns and villages in Southern Lebanon. While no actual bombings were reported, Lebanon is still recovering from the summer's Israeli air campaign, so the roars of the jets caused panic among many residents, although some of them took to rooftops and balconies to watch. A number of aircraft also caused sonic booms over the Southern port city of Tyre and further inland at Nabatieh.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's personal representative for South Lebanon, Geir Pedersen, released at statement expressing "serious concern" at the continuing overflights, "which constitute a breach of Lebanese sovereignty." Pedersen was quoted as being particularly disturbed by the intensive mock air raids that took place over Beirut. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon has reported eight air violations in the South, its area of operations, over the past two days. On the local front, Information Minister Ghazi Aridi's response was harsher, with the official slamming the incident as "a terrorist act" by Israel. "The low overflights [create] fear and panic and are clearly disregard and disrespect for UN Resolution 1701," he told a news conference. The resolution, which led to the August 14 cease-fire that ended 34 days between Israel and Lebanon, calls on both sides to respect the Blue Line drawn by the United Nations after Israel ended its 22-year occupation of most of Southern Lebanon in 2000. "Yet they dare to continue to release statements in which they complain about Lebanon not respecting Resolution 1701 and continue to make demands to the international community," he added. Despite the condemnations, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz has vowed the flights will continue because of alleged arms smuggling to Hizbullah from Syria since the end of the war.

Meanwhile, there were reports of further violations on the ground in the form of a shooting incident in Kfar Shouba, where Israeli soldiers shot at farmers. "We heard the same reports and we are looking into it. If this is indeed confirmed it will be very serious," Pedersen told The Daily Star, which had not confirmed the incident by press time. - With agencies, additional reporting by Mohammed Zaatari and Maher Zeineddine.

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