BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Lebanese armed group Hezbollah fired a barrage of rockets into northern Israel on Monday in response to the killing of at least three of its members in an Israeli bombing of Lebanon.
The exchange of fire represents a major expansion of the conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants to the Israeli-Lebanese border to the north. Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Israel, fought a brutal month-long war in 2006.
Hezbollah said in a statement on Monday that it fired rockets and mortar shells at two Israeli military sites in the Galilee. The Israeli army said that it had monitored a number of “launching operations” from Lebanon to Israel, without causing any casualties. It said it responded with artillery shelling on Lebanon.
Hezbollah said in successive statements on the Internet that three of its members were killed in the Israeli “aggression” on southern Lebanon on Monday afternoon. Two Lebanese security sources told Reuters that two other Hezbollah members were killed.
Israel bombed southern Lebanon on Monday after a cross-border raid claimed by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement, which has been fighting alongside Hamas since it launched its surprise attack on Israel on Saturday.
The Israeli army said that soldiers supported by helicopters killed at least two militants who crossed the border. A Hezbollah official had previously denied the group’s involvement in the cross-border raid.
Two sources close to Hezbollah said that the deadly Israeli bombing of a Hezbollah observation site in southern Lebanon would provoke a reaction from the group.
Hezbollah and Israel have exchanged fire intermittently across the border since 2006 while avoiding a major conflict. They exchanged artillery and missile fire on Sunday.
Some residents of southern Lebanon said they left their homes along the border with Israel on Monday amid heavy shelling on the outskirts of towns and villages so far.
The official news agency reported that traffic was heavy on main roads due to people fleeing the border area and that schools in the area would remain closed on Tuesday.
The United Nations urges restraint
A series of incidents over the past months had already increased the risk of escalation along the Lebanese-Israeli border before the outbreak of fighting in Israel and Gaza.
The Israeli army said in a statement that its soldiers “killed a number of suspected militants who infiltrated Israeli territory from Lebanese territory.” He did not clarify the number.
The statement added that military helicopters are “currently bombing the area.”
A security source in Lebanon and a source in the Lebanese border area said that a group of men approached the border and one of them opened fire on an Israeli observation point.
Israeli Army Radio reported that the site is located near Admit, on the other side of the Lebanese border towns of Alma al-Shaab and Zahraa.
A spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission said that its head, Major General Lazaro, “is in contact with the parties concerned and urges them to exercise the utmost restraint.”
The Lebanese army confirmed that there had been bombing in the border areas and asked people to be careful in their movements.
Gabi Haj, a father of three who owns a house in Lebanon near the border, described the violent bombing near him.
“Our house is really close to the border, so we will leave and go down to the village. All my neighbors are doing the same thing,” he said.
The French Consulate in Lebanon asked its citizens to postpone any travel to southern Lebanon. Britain also said tensions were high and the situation could escalate.
(This story has been corrected to say at least three killed instead of four in paragraphs 1 and 4. It also corrects security sources saying the total number of dead is five in paragraph 4)
(Reporting by Laila Bassam, Taymour Azhari and Maya Gebaili in Beirut and Dan Williams in Jerusalem – Prepared by Muhammad for the Arab Bulletin) Writing by Taymour Azhari; Editing by Nick Macfie, Thomas Janowski and Toby Chopra
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