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Four die on border as Israeli and Lebanese troops clash

Four people died, including two Lebanese soldiers and an Israeli army officer, when troops exchanged fire on the countries’ border yesterday in a battle which started over a tree.

It was the most serious clash in four years.

The violence apparently erupted after Israeli soldiers went to cut down a tree along the fence dividing the two countries, a sign of the tensions in an area where Israel fought a war in 2006 with Lebanese militants 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.

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

“It was over the fence but still within Israeli territory,” a military spokesman said.

Ronith Daher (32), a Lebanese journalist at the scene, said she saw a UN peacekeeper ask Israel not to allow the Israeli soldier to cross the fence and warned them the Lebanese would open fire. The Israelis proceeded and Lebanese soldiers fired into the air. She said the Israelis fired directly at the Lebanese soldiers.

But Israel’s northern commander, Major General Gadi Eizenkot, accused Lebanese forces of shooting toward forces inside Israeli territory without any provocation. He said that while soldiers were removing bushes by the fence, Lebanese military snipers shot two officers more than 300 yards away from the fence.

The military announced that a battalion commander was killed and a captain critically wounded.

A spokesman said Israel responded with infantry, tanks and artillery fire.

Residents near the Fatima Gate, a one-time border crossing with Israel, briefly blocked a road, shouting at UN peacekeepers: “Are you here to protect us or are you here to run away?”

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman urged his troops to “confront any Israeli aggression”.

A Lebanese journalist also died when an Israeli shell landed next to him.

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