Israel cuts down contested tree, Lebanon says ready to retaliate

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BEIRUT/ JERUSALEM: Israel and Lebanon were Wednesday preparing to bury their dead from a major flareup along the border as officials sought to calm tensions after the most serious confrontation in four years.

Three Lebanese nationals, two soldiers and a journalist, and an Israeli soldier were killed in Tuesday’s shootout which saw both sides threatening retaliation if the shooting recurred.

Meanwhile, Israeli troops returned Wednesday to the site of Tuesday’s shootout and cut down a number of trees growing along the border, completing a task which had set off the confrontation.

The UN peacekeeping force has confirmed that the tree at the center of the clashes along was in Israeli territory.

Lebanon, however, contests ownership of that territory.

"In this area the Lebanese government had some reservations concerning the Blue Line, as did the Israeli government at some other location," a statement added.

The Blue Line is a UN-drawn border between the two countries established in r 2000.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the announcement, saying it "clearly corroborates the Israeli version of events" and showed that Lebanese troops had opened fire "without any provocation or justification whatsoever."

On the other hand, Lebanese media lashed out at the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, calling it an "impotent" bystander.

"The impotent international forces beat a retreat, left the place of combat and watched the unfolding events from afar," said the daily As-Safir, which is close to Hezbollah.

Israel claims its troops were fired upon while conducting maintenance work along the border on Tuesday, while Lebanon said its troops opened fire after an Israel patrol crossed the border fence.

Both sides blamed each other for the skirmish which killed two Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist and a senior Israeli officer.

Israeli Defense Minister on Wednesday called the deadly border skirmish a Lebanese provocation but said it was a local incident not orchestrated by Hezbollah or the top brass of the Lebanese army.

"It was a very grave provocation and we reacted in a measured, just and immediate manner," Ehud Barak told Israeli public radio.

But at the same time, he stressed that "Tuesday’s incident was not programmed by the chiefs of staff of the Lebanese army in Beirut or by Hezbollah."

The Israeli military establishment said the incident was orchestrated by a single, radical Lebanese army officer, who was not acting on orders from higher-ups, according to defense correspondents.

The officer, upon hearing from UN forces that Israel planned to conduct maintenance work along the border, invited media to the area to document the incident, an unnamed Israeli military official told public radio.

"One must act in such a way that a local incident does not degenerate into a full-blown crisis," Barak said.

"I hope there will be no escalation that we will have a calm summer and that things will return to normal."

But his remarks were not well received by the Lebanese military in Beirut, with a spokesman dismissing them as "a lie."

"There are no officers within the Lebanese army who can make decisions on their own without first consulting with the top command," he told AFP.

The world reacts
Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah called on his followers not to react but said the group would not "stand idly" by in the future.

"We told our fighters to hold back, not to do anything," he said in a speech transmitted by video link to thousands of supporters massed in Hezbollah’s stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

Lebanon said it would file a complaint with the UN Security council, whose members met for private consultations on the incident.

Afterwards, the council expressed "deep concern" and urged the parties to show "utmost restraint … observe the cessation of hostilities and prevent any further escalation."

Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is on vacation in Italy, called various world leaders to discuss the Israeli "aggression."

Israel’s security cabinet was to meet Wednesday to discuss "the consequences of the attacks for which the Lebanese government is responsible," said the official, who asked not to be named.

"It is evident that the Lebanese government is doubly responsible: the attack against our soldiers occurred when they were on Israeli territory and it is Lebanese soldiers who opened fire and forced us to respond," he added.

Syria condemned what it said was Israel’s "heinous aggression," Iran spoke of a "hysterical assault" and Jordan said it was "deeply concerned."

Meanwhile, Canada has warned its nationals to avoid non-essential travel to Lebanon following the recent clashes. Without mentioning the clash, the foreign ministry warned Tuesday that the situation in Lebanon "remains fragile."

"Heightened tensions throughout the region, together with increased threats globally from terrorism, put Canadians at greater risk," it said.

It advised Canadians not to travel south of the Litani River, particularly to areas near the border with Israel, because "tensions remain high" despite a cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah in August 2006.

Canadians also were urged to avoid certain areas of the southern Lebanese city of Tripoli "prone to intercommunity violence" and Palestinian refugee camps "as the security situation in these areas remains very tense."

It told Canadians to expect their government’s aid in leaving the country only "as a last resort," if commercial travel options have been exhausted.

"Situations vary from one location to another, and there may be constraints on government resources, which can limit the ability of the government of Canada to provide assistance, particularly in countries or regions where the potential for violent conflict or political instability are high." it said.

Ottawa had to evacuate 15,000 Canadians from Lebanon in 2006 when war broke out between Israel and the Shiite Hezbollah militia.

More than 165,000 Canadians are of Lebanese origin, according to Canada’s 2006 census.

Deserted streets
The streets of the Lebanese village of Adaysseh were nearly deserted on Wednesday after the clash, but soldiers could be seen on some of the rooftops in Adaysseh, which lies just north of the border and overlooks the site where fighting started.

But some residents could be seen returning cautiously on Wednesday.

Passengers on board vehicles heading to the village could be seen waving Lebanese flags.

Adaysseh is home to about 3,000 people, and many of its inhabitants make their living from farming, particularly tobacco growing.

Lebanon’s army chief, General Jean Kahwaji, was greeted with applause by residents as he briefly visited an army post partly destroyed by Israeli shelling on Tuesday.

The post is located on the northern edge of the village and overlooks the border area where the controversial trees that sparked the fighting are located.

Residents placed flowers on the rubble in memory of the two soldiers and the journalist killed.

A two-storey building adjoining the army post, where soldiers had sought refuge during the shelling, was also hit by a shell and partially destroyed.
A small shop on the ground floor was heavily damaged.

"All those who have families and children fled the village yesterday and they are cautiously coming back today as things seem to have calmed down," said Khadijeh, 55.

She spoke to AFP near the village as she returned home in a taxi, with her three children and belongings.

Another resident, 30-year-old Hussein Sabagh, said "the situation seems back to normal, and residents are relieved. I stayed on yesterday to help the army in case of need. We are proud of them."

Jalal Rammal, 38, said he was passing by the Lebanese army post when it was shelled.

"I was hit by shrapnel in the leg and found myself lying on the ground near a soldier who was unconscious," he said.

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