KFARSHOUBA, Lebanon (AFP) – Violence flared on Lebanon’s border with Israel for the first time in four months as preparations quickened for parliamentary elections in two weeks’ time.
The Friday 13th flare-up underlined the dangers of a power vacuum in Lebanon after Syria ended its 29-year troop deployment last month, with the anti-Syrian opposition fracturing amid 11th-hour bickering over the constituency boundaries for the elections.
An Israeli military spokeswoman reported no fewer than nine explosions near Israeli positions in the disputed Shebaa Farms district.
Israeli tanks, artillery and warplanes retaliated, destroying four Hezbollah positions across the border, she added.
A Lebanese police report said Israeli gunners began the clashes with heavy machinegun fire on the village of Kfarshouba early afternoon, which damaged a house but caused no casualties.
Israel denied the Kfarshouba shooting.
Two hours later Hezbollah said it retaliated by firing two shells on Rweissat al-Alam, an Israeli position in the Shebaa Farms.
Israeli jetfighters launched two successive retaliatory raids while helicopter gunships, tanks and artillery pounded nearby border areas, police said.
There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Seized from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war along with the rest of the Golan Heights, the Shebaa Farms are now claimed by Lebanon with Syrian blessing although Israel rejects the arrangement.
The raids were the first since air attacks on January 17 wounded two Lebanese civilians, reviving the lingering tension that has prevailed in the region since Israel ended its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.
Foreign Minister Mahmud Hammud blamed Israel for the rising tension and urged the “international community and the
United Nations to act to secure regional stability.”
Prime Minister Nagib Miqati contacted the UN peacekeeping force in south Lebanon in a bid to “ease tensions”, the official ANI news agency said.
Tension had been rising for several days, exacerbated by two blasts in 24 hours on the Israeli side that prompted stern warnings from Israel that it held the Lebanese government responsible for maintaining peace in the area.
“Israel holds Lebanon responsible for what happens on its border,” said Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz.
“We are following events in Lebanon closely. The Syrians continue to play a certain role despite announcing their troops have withdrawn.”
Syrian troops and intelligence agents pulled out less than three weeks ago in a withdrawal that is being verified by the United Nations.
The Syrian-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which had 12 MPs in Lebanon’s outgoing parliament, controls virtually all the area along the border and has vowed to liberate the Shebaa Farms.
On Friday the president of the Hezbollah parliamentary bloc, Mohammad Raad, called for “a massive turnout at the elections regardless of who the candidates are”.
His call came as the pro-Syrian speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, said he would announce a single candidates’ list for his Amal faction and Hezbollah for the two constituencies that make up Lebanon’s Shiite southern heartland.
The news came as Prime Minister Nagib Miqati vowed to hold the elections on time despite the differences over constituency boundaries which are seen as unfavourable to Lebanon’s Christian community.
In an effort to patch up their differences, opposition leaders agreed Thursday to set up a committee to draw up common lists of candidates for the elections, which will be held on four consecutive Sundays starting May 29.