Israel, Lebanon, UN officers to meet after cross-border attacks

Israeli soldier killed amid specter of renewed fighting in area that has remained mostly calm since 2006 war

An Israeli soldier at the Rosh Hanikra border crossing between Israel and Lebanon in July 2008.
AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

Israeli, Lebanese and United Nations military officers will meet on Monday in an attempt to defuse tension after cross-border shootings left an Israeli soldier dead and two Lebanese soldiers wounded.

Israeli troops shot two Lebanese soldiers early Monday, hours after a Lebanese army sniper killed an Israeli soldier, Shlomi Cohen, 31, as he drove along the volatile border near Rosh Hanikra late at night, the Israeli military said. Israel had no immediate details on the condition of the shot Lebanese soldiers.

The shootings raised the possibility of renewed fighting in the area, which has remained mostly quiet since a monthlong war in the summer of 2006, though an Israeli defense official said Israel had no interest in further escalation.

Lebanon's National News Agency (NAA) confirmed the shooting by a member of the Lebanese army, but it was not clear why the sniper opened fire. In the past, the Lebanese military opened fire after saying Israeli soldiers had tried to infiltrate the country.

Lebanese security officials did not immediately comment on the killing. Hezbollah, the Shia militia group that waged the war seven years ago, did not appear to be involved in the incident.

Israeli army spokeswoman Lt. Libby Weiss said Israeli forces identified "suspicious movement" along the border just after midnight and shot two members of Lebanon's armed forces. She said the shooting occurred near where Cohen was killed. 

Lebanon's NNA said Israeli troops opened fire on a forested area on the Lebanese side of the border around 1 a.m. local time. The news agency did not report any Lebanese casualties.

After the killing, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman, said Israel had protested "this outrageous breach of Israel's sovereignty" with U.N. peacekeeping forces in Lebanon and heightened its state of preparedness.

"We will not tolerate aggression against the state of Israel and maintain the right to exercise self-defense against perpetrators of attacks against Israel and its civilians," he said. But he added that "we have no interest in further escalation of violence."

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel would be meeting with the U.N. peacekeeping force UNIFIL to request an explanation from the Lebanese army about whether the soldier acted on his own, without orders, and what the Lebanese army would do to prevent such incidents in the future.

The U.N. peacekeeping force along the Israel-Lebanon border said it had no information about an Israeli shooting Monday.

But after the Lebanese shooting, Andrea Tenenti, a spokesman for U.N. forces in southern Lebanon, said the U.N. was informed of a "serious incident" along the border. He said that UNIFIL was in contact with both the Lebanese and Israeli armies and that they were cooperating.

"The incident happened on the Israeli side of the blue line," he said, referring to a U.N.-drawn demarcation of the border between the two enemy states. He gave no further details, saying UNIFIL was still investigating.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a release, urged both sides to exercise restraint.

Since the 2006 war, the border has experienced only sporadic violence. Israel has responded with airstrikes and artillery fire after a number of rocket attacks and shootings across the border. In the most serious incident, a high-ranking Israeli officer was killed by a Lebanese sniper in 2010 after Israeli forces tried to cut down a tree along the border. Israel responded with artillery fire, killing two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist.

The 2006 war broke out after Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas crossed into Israel and captured two Israeli soldiers. The ensuing monthlong conflict killed about 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis.

Hezbollah, which has an arsenal of tens of thousands of missiles and rockets aimed at Israel, is preoccupied with the war in neighboring Syria, where it is aiding the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. Israeli officials believe Hezbollah is not interested in opening a front with Israel at this time.

The Associated Press and Reuters

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