Israel army shoots 2 Lebanese after soldier killed

DANIEL ESTRIN Associated Press Published:

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israeli troops shot two Lebanese soldiers early on Monday, hours after a Lebanese army sniper killed an Israeli soldier as he drove along the volatile border late at night, the Israeli military said.

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.

Relations between Lebanon and Israel are so fraught with tensions that any incident risks sparking a major conflagration. The two have been officially at war since Israel's creation in 1948. Each country bans its citizens from visiting the other, and there are no direct trade ties between the two.

In the incident late Sunday, Israeli soldier Shlomi Cohen, 31, was fatally shot by a Lebanese army sniper near the tourist site of Rosh Hanikra on the Mediterranean Sea, the Israeli military said.

Late Monday, the Lebanese army said the original shooting was the result of "individual behavior by one of the soldiers."

It said a military committee was investigating the incident and was coordinating with the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon to deal with the fallout from the shooting. With the sniper in custody, there was no word on a motive for the shooting and no mention of the two soldiers allegedly shot by Israel. The Lebanese army stressed its full commitment to U.N. resolutions, including maintaining a cease-fire that ended the 2006 war.

Hezbollah, the guerrilla group that waged the war seven years ago, did not appear to be involved in the incident.

Israeli army spokeswoman Lt. Libby Weiss said that in the wake of the death of the Israeli soldier, Israeli forces identified "suspicious movement" along the border just after midnight, and shot two members of Lebanon's armed forces. The shooting occurred near where Cohen was killed, she said but had no details on the condition of the Lebanese.

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.

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

He stressed Israel's "right to exercise self-defense," but also said, "we have no interest in further escalation of violence."

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel would be meeting with the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, to request an explanation from the Lebanese army about whether the soldier acted on his own and what it would do to prevent such incidents in the future.

He said Israel considers "the Lebanese government and the Lebanese army responsible for what happens on their side."

Israel and Lebanon remain enemy countries with no diplomatic relations. Their armies do not communicate directly but in cases of increased tension exchange messages through a U.N. intermediary. Generally, Israeli army officials and Lebanese army officials sit in adjacent rooms, with U.N. representatives shuttling messages from room to room.

UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti said the peacekeeping forces was investigating the incidents and was in touch with both sides. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement that both sides were "cooperating with the United Nations ... to ascertain the facts" and urged restraint.

Since the 2006 war, the border has experienced only sporadic violence. Israel has responded with airstrikes and artillery fire following a number of rocket attacks and shootings. 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 at the moment preoccupied with the war in neighboring Syria, where it is aiding the forces of President Bashar Assad. Israeli officials believe Hezbollah is not interested in opening a new front with Israel at the current time.

Israel and Lebanon have fought several wars before. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon with the stated intention of driving Palestinian guerrillas out of the south. The Israeli military battled halfway through the country into Beirut and occupied south Lebanon until 2000.

The Lebanese are banned from calling or traveling to Israel or having contacts with Israelis. Such an offense is punishable by anything from few weeks to life in prison with hard labor, depending on the kind and level of contact. All Israeli products are banned in the country, including Israeli films.

Israel restrictions are slightly less stringent, with phone calls to Lebanon and Lebanese film screenings permitted, though it is a punishable offense for an Israeli to visit Lebanon.

The two nation's carriers do not fly over each other's airspace. Travelers coming from Israel to Lebanon usually go through Jordan or Egypt. Those with Israeli stamps in their passports are deported, which forces travelers to carry a second passport.

Those who have visited in Lebanon and arrive in Israel are heavily questioned at the border or airport.

___

Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas and Zeina Karam in Beirut, and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.