Friday, February 09, 2007

UNIFIL steps up presence after border clash

UNIFIL steps up presence after border clash
By Iman Azzi and Rym Ghazal
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: A day after an exchange of fire between the Lebanese and Israeli armies along the border, Lebanon's defense minister slammed Israel's claims that the clashes were a Hizbullah "provocation." In a response to Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's claims that the military clash on the border was a "provocation" by the resistance group, Defense Minister Elias Murr said, "there is no Hizbullah down there, they weren't involved." Speaking on a political talk show late Thursday, Murr added that "there are only the UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army down there. There was no provocation of any kind by Hizbullah. Israel crossed the Blue Line." Speaking during a news conference in Madrid, Livni had declared the clashes "over. "It's been dealt with," Livni said, adding, however, that the incident had come about because Hizbullah "is pursuing its provocations and continues to try to sow unrest in the region." The exchange of fire Wednesday night was the first involving Lebanese and Israeli troops since the Lebanese Army deployed in August to South Lebanon to work alongside international peacekeepers in a weapons-free buffer zone.

According to a statement from the Lebanese Army, an Israeli Army bulldozer, accompanied by Merkava tanks and helicopters, crossed the Israeli-constructed technical fence and continued north, past the Blue Line. It added that Lebanese troops fired warning shots into the air, and that an ensuing exchange of fire between the two armies lasted for several minutes. Speaking to The Daily Star on condition of anonymity, a Lebanese army general, who was one of the officials sent to survey the area immediately after the clash, said that the Israelis "crossed the Blue Line by 15 meters toward the village of Maroun al-Ras."

He said that although the situation had returned to "calm" on Thursday, the incident had been "a provocation and a blatant violation by the Israeli Army of UN Security Council Resolution 1701," which ended the 2006 war with Israel. He rejected a claim by the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) that Israel was "de-mining" in the area, asking, "Since when does the Israeli Army de-mine the landmines they themselves planted?" "It is the Lebanese Army's job to de-mine," the general said. But Israel said its troops had passed the fence to search for explosives planted by Hizbullah on Monday, insisting that its forces had remained south of the international border and within Israeli territory, which stretches beyond the fence in some areas.

UNIFIL spokesperson Liam McDowall told The Daily Star that the firefight was a "serious incident," which was "initiated by the Lebanese Army after an [Israeli] bulldozer crossed the technical fence in an apparent attempt to clear the area of mines between the technical fence and the Blue Line." At the scene, French officers, joined by a Lebanese liaison officer, would not speak to journalists, but were overheard in private conversations as saying the Blue Line was not visibly marked in the area. McDowall told The Daily Star that an Israeli plane was seen flying over Lebanese land in the area of Maroun al-Ras late Wednesday afternoon, before the incident occurred. The Lebanese Army reported three other Israeli air violations that began at 9 p.m., Wednesday evening, with planes circling the South for 12 hours. Livni, who was on a visit to Spain said that Israel had organized the clearing of mines "placed in the path of Israelis," allegedly by Hizbullah. "They [the soldiers] left and we are going to pursue coordination with the UN and take all necessary measures to avoid this kind of incident." Hizbullah acknowledged that the resistance had planted the mines, but said they had done so long before the summer war. A separate statement issued by the Lebanese Army Command on Thursday said Israel had crossed the border "under the pretext of searching for explosive devices north of the Blue Line." "As the bulldozer was moving closer, the Lebanese Army stationed nearby fired at it to force it to stop and withdraw ... as an extension of their violation, the enemy fired at one of the Lebanese army posts inside the Lebanese territories," it said. A Lebanese security official, speaking on condition of anonymity to the Associated Press, said the army fired volleys of 0.5 caliber machine guns toward the bulldozer, drawing Israeli forces to return with five anti-tank grenades that targeted an army armored vehicle and a transport jeep.

The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that an Israeli tank fired two rounds at the Lebanese Army - at an outpost and an armored vehicle. An Israeli Army spokesman told AFP that "the Lebanese army first fired warning shots. We asked them through UNIFIL to stop shooting. Shots were fired in the direction of our forces." UNIFIL increased deployment in the area Thursday and worked to re-demarcate the Blue Line as many markers have been destroyed or broken. Although Israel said it was eager to avoid another war with Lebanon, General Alon Friedman told Israel's Public Radio that "we are going to continue our flights and even bolster our aerial activities in Lebanon." "We expect the calm to return but we are prepared for all scenarios," he said, adding that "our orders to fire have changed since the end of the war. We can fire on anyone who opens fire on us, who has explosives or who poses a threat to us." In a statement from his office, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said, "we do not intend to pursue the policy of turning a blind eye, as in the past." "We have no intentions of escalation," he added, "but wherever there is fire endangering [Israeli Army] forces we will have to react."

A statement from Fouad Siniora's office said the premier had instructed the head of the Lebanese Army General Michel Suleiman "to confront any future Israeli violations against Lebanon's sovereignty." Siniora met with Geir Pederson, the personal representative of the UN secretary general in Lebanon, Thursday morning and informed him that the Lebanese government rejected any further Israeli violation of Lebanese land including the ongoing air violations that "have never stopped since the cease-fire in August." President Emile Lahoud issued a statement that "saluted" the actions of the Lebanese Army, adding that "such a performance is only normal to an institution which has always made enormous sacrifices to restore the country's unity and territorial integrity." In a meeting with UNIFIL Force Commander Major General Claudio Graziano, Lahoud charged that "Israel, through its recent activities, is attempting to modify the Blue Line." Graziano also met with Siniora, Speaker Nabih Berri, and commanders from the Lebanese Army. After meeting the speaker, he said "I repeated to [Berri] that I'm here with UNIFIL for Lebanon and for maintaining peace." Graziano has called for "tripartite meetings" between the concerned parties. "It's a serious incident," Graziano said, but would not comment further until a full investigation by the peacekeeping force is complete. Berri told Graziano that he could rely on the full support of the Lebanese people to ensure the implementation of Resolution 1701. The speaker also called the head of the Lebanese Army to congratulate the troops for their "steadfast dedicated protection of Lebanon." Following a meeting with Lahoud, Hizbullah MP Mohammad Raad paid tribute to the performance of the national army, saying that "Israel is attempting to impose a new status quo in the area of Maroun al-Ras and other border regions." - With Agencies and additional reporting by Mohammad Zaatari

No comments:

Naharnet Lebanon News

Marketing in Lebanon