LEBANESE army fires at Israeli warplanes

Sunday, June 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Lebanese anti-aircraft guns opened fire Sunday on Israeli warplanes on a reconnaissance mission over Lebanon, Lebanese officials said.

The shooting _ which was denied by Israeli even though reporters heard the gunfire _ was the first response to such overflights since Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon a year ago.

Fighter jets were seen flying at medium altitude over southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley on Sunday morning and early afternoon. The Lebanese army opened fire from anti-aircraft batteries dotting the area but did not hit any aircraft, according to Lebanese security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The jets reached as far as Beirut in central Lebanon, some 120 miles from Israel, and were audible on the ground.

In Israel, an army spokesman denied any Israeli planes were targeted. He would not comment on allegations that the planes flew over Lebanon.

``There was no fire directed toward Israeli warplanes,'' the spokesman said.

The overflights came amid heightened tensions in the Middle East after a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv on Friday killed 19 Israelis and the Palestinian bomber.

Israeli warplanes have been flying regularly over Lebanon since the May 24, 2000 pullout of the Israeli army from southern Lebanon.

Staffan de Mistura, the Beirut-based U.N. representative for south Lebanon, said in April that Israel's air force has violated Lebanese airspace 342 times.

In April, Israeli warplanes destroyed a Syrian army radar station in central Lebanon in retaliation for a guerrilla attack in the south that killed an Israeli soldier.

On May 24, the first anniversary of the withdrawal, an Israeli helicopter gunship shot down a Lebanese training aircraft after its pilot illegally entered Israeli airspace.

Lebanon, which has a few transport helicopters and no fighter jets, has responded to the Israeli overflights in the last year by lodging complaints with the United Nations.