Four die as Lebanon and Israel clash

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The Independent Online

Four people died when Lebanese and Israeli troops exchanged fire on the border today in a battle which started over the trimming of a tree.

It was the most serious clashes in four years, the victims included two Lebanese soldiers and an Israeli army officer.

The violence apparently erupted after Israeli soldiers went to cut down a tree along the fence dividing the two countries, a sign of the level of tensions in an area where Israel fought a war in 2006 with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

The UN urged "maximum restraint" and said it was working with both sides to restore calm. After an initial clash of about five minutes, intermittent shelling and gunfire went on for several hours until the fighting stopped by mid-afternoon.

A Lebanese army officer said the battle started when Israeli troops tried to remove a tree from the Lebanese side of the border.

"It was over the fence but still within Israeli territory," a military spokesman said.

Ronith Daher, 32, a Lebanese journalist who was at the scene, said she saw a UN peacekeeper ask Israel not to allow the Israeli soldier to cross the fence and warned them the Lebanese troops would open fire. The Israelis proceeded, however, and Lebanese soldiers fired into the air. She said the Israelis fired back directly at the Lebanese soldiers.

The Israeli military's northern commander, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, however, accused Lebanese forces of shooting toward forces inside Israeli territory without any provocation." He said that while soldiers were removing bushes by the fence, Lebanese military snipers shot two officers who were more than 300 yards away from the fence.

The military announced that a 45-year-old battalion commander was killed and a captain was critically wounded.

A spokesman said Israel responded with infantry, tanks and artillery fire, and later sent helicopters and artillery fire at a Lebanese army base and command centre.

Residents near the Fatima Gate, a one-time border crossing with Israel, briefly blocked a road as UN peacekeepers tried to pass, shouting: "Are you here to protect us or are you here to run away?"

Many in the area view the international force with mistrust, and there have been skirmishes between residents and the peacekeepers in the past.

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman denounced the fighting and urged the army commander to "confront any Israeli aggression whatever the sacrifices."

A Lebanese officer said one of the Israeli shells hit a house in the Lebanese border town of Adeisseh. One civilian was wounded in the shelling, he said. A security official also said a Lebanese journalist working for the daily Al-Akhbar newspaper, Assaf Abu Rahhal, was killed when an Israeli shell landed next to him in Adeisseh.

The border has been relatively quiet since the summer 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war that left 1,200 Lebanese and about 160 Israelis dead.