Four dead after tree-cutting sparks border clash

LEBANESE and Israeli troops exchanged fire on the border in the most serious clashes since a fierce war four years ago, killing four people including two Lebanese soldiers and an Israeli army officer.

The violence apparently erupted over a move by Israeli soldiers to cut down a tree along the fence dividing the two countries, a sign of the level of tensions at the border 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, witnesses said.

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

An Associated Press photo shows an Israeli standing on a crane reaching over the fence that Israel erected to separate the two countries. The fence, however, does not match the UN-drawn border in all places, and the Israeli military said in a statement that the tree was in Israeli territory.

A military spokesman said the tree cutting was coordinated with the UN peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, UNIFIL.

Ronith Daher, 32, a Lebanese journalist, said she saw a UNIFIL 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, Major General Gadi Eizenkot, however, accused Lebanese forces of shooting toward forces inside Israeli territory “without any provocation”.

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

Eizenkot said Israel responded with infantry, tanks and artillery fire, and sent helicopters and artillery fire at a Lebanese Army base.

“These are the first casualties in the past four years (in the border area). We view this very seriously,” he said.

Nonetheless, he described the incident as “isolated”. He did not elaborate.

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