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French Version

French tanks face off with Israelis near border village

UNIFIL spokesman says incident was 'misunderstood'

French tanks attached to UNIFIL had a brief face-off with Israeli jeeps and armored vehicles on Thursday on a road in South Lebanon where the Israeli Army has been stopping motorists at temporary checkpoints.

According to AFP correspondents, four French Leclerc tanks moved up a hill to stand 500 meters from the entrance to the border village of Marwaheen as Israeli armored vehicles and jeeps operated nearby on Lebanese soil.

The two sides were locked in a 20-minute face-off, the first between the Israeli Army and UNIFIL since the latter was beefed up to enforce the cease-fire in effect since August 14.

The French tanks then withdrew, as observers from the UN Truce Supervision Organization deployed in the area.

Israeli forces have set up sporadic checkpoints in the area over the past two days, prompting the Lebanese government to file complaints with UNIFIL.

But an official at UNIFIL told The Daily Star on Thursday that "to this date, there have been no attempts by the Israeli Army to re-enter any of the land they have officially withdrawn from." Reports of a "face-off were misunderstood," said the official.

He added that as long as the Lebanese Army was not yet in place, the Israeli Army has a right to move about in the areas it still officially holds, in the presence of UNIFIL.

"Only when the Israeli Army tries to enter Lebanese Army-held areas, will UNIFIL take a preventative step," he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Thursday he did not expect another fight with Hizbullah soon, amid stalled talks on a timetable for the Jewish state to withdraw its remaining troops from Lebanon.

"The chances that Hizbullah would be persuaded to mount in the short term a major military confrontation such as we saw this summer are very slight," Olmert said in an interview on public radio.

"The reality has changed and Hizbullah knows it," he argued. "But I do not exclude the possibility that the Iranians and to a certain extent the Syrians will try to manipulate Hizbullah, so that we should expect to be tested."

The Israeli Army has suspended its pullout from South Lebanon, where it still occupies about 10 border positions, according to UNIFIL sources.

Disputes over how the Lebanese Army and UNIFIL peacekeepers will deal with Hizbullah fighters are holding up the troop withdrawal, the Israeli military's chief of staff said on Wednesday.

A senior Lebanese military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Beirut was considering filing a complaint with the UN Security Council over Israel's failure to withdraw from South Lebanon in a timely fashion.

"Israel is not pulling out; it is altering the border fence, stealing our water in Wazzani and our earth near Khiam. They are violating our airspace," he said.

The Lebanese Army command issued a statement accusing the Israeli Air Force of several airspace violations on Thursday. According to the army, Israeli warplanes staged mock air raids in the western Bekaa Valley and near Lake Qaraoun, then headed south over Jezzine and Iqlim Al-Tuffah. The Israeli Air Force also carried out similar mock raids between Nabatiyeh and Marjayoun.

At the same time, Israeli tanks and bulldozers entered Lebanese territory near the villages of Aitaroun and Ghajar, and an Israeli gunboat fired in the direction of Lebanese fishing boats off Ras al-Naqoura.

The Israeli military also continued working on a barbed-wire fence in an area near the Lebanese villages of Kfar Kila and Adaysseh.

"Lebanon keeps filing complaints" with UNIFIL, the senior Lebanese military official said.

"They are now in the dozens. UNIFIL are saying that they are investigating the matters," he added, "but experience tells us that the Israelis never do anything without being forced to do it. It will probably need Security Council action, or else if the situation persists, there will be a lot more problems later on."

The sporadic checkpoints near Marwaheen are a particular source of tension, the senior Lebanese military official said.

"Israeli troops are erecting checkpoints, stopping people, including Lebanese and foreign journalists," he said. "This is not acceptable. These are part of provocations and pressures by the Israelis to negotiate security measures and rules of engagement," he added.

"Hizbullah is not out there with arms, the Israelis know that Hizbullah is committed to the terms of Resolution 1701," the official said.

"They are looking for justifications, they probably want to negotiate security arrangements or in the issue of the prisoners' exchange," he added. "But we will not compromise on anything outside the scope of Resolution 1701."

Meanwhile, Spanish troops disembarked from a naval vessel docked in the Port of Beirut on Thursday, the latest reinforcements for the growing UN peacekeeping mission.

Some 170 troops and engineers arrived Thursday, along with 35 containers of military and building materials and 15 vehicles, said Alberto Gonzales, an official working with the Spanish contingent.

He said the troops would join hundreds of other Spanish peacekeepers currently based near Marjayoun.

Also on Thursday, a German delegation consisting of public security experts inspected the General Security and Customs facilities at the Abboudieh and Arida border crossings along the Syrian frontier.

The German team's work was aimed at determining the requirements to prevent smuggling across the border. Germany, which committed itself in August to helping the Lebanese government control its borders, has already supplied equipment, but it has yet to be installed.

Beirut 29-09-2006
The Daily Star

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