Violence flares on Israel-Lebanon frontier; 7 Israeli soldiers wounded

Violence flares on Israel-Lebanon frontier; 7 Israeli soldiers wounded

JERUSALEM/BEIRUT - The threat of a full-blown conflict between Israel and Hezbollah increased on Wednesday after the Lebanese militant group fired a missile at an Israeli army vehicle along the frontier and wounded seven soldiers, the biggest escalation since a 2006 war.

The attack, which Hezbollah said was carried out by one of its brigades in the area, was in apparent retaliation for a Jan. 18 Israeli air strike in southern Syria that killed several Hezbollah members as well as an Iranian general.

It came hours after air strikes by Israeli jets near the occupied Golan Heights overnight, which Israel's military said was in response to rocket fire from Syria.

Tensions in the region, where the frontiers of Israel, Lebanon and Syria meet and militant groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are active, have been bubbling for months but have boiled over in the past 10 days.

There were initial reports on Lebanese media that an Israeli soldier was captured during the attack, but the Israeli army denied it, as did a Lebanese political source.

A member of a United Nations' peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon was killed as Israel conducted airstrikes after the attack, a UN spokesman said. Officials in Spain said the peacekeeper was Spanish.

Israeli medics confirmed that seven Israeli soldiers were wounded but said none of the injuries were life-threatening.

The frontier has largely been quiet since 2006, when Hezbollah and Israel fought a 34-day war in which 120 people in Israel and more than 500 in Lebanon were killed.

Since the end of a 50-day conflict with Hamas militants in Gaza last year, Israel has warned about friction on the northern border, including the possibility that Hezbollah might dig tunnels to infiltrate Israel. In recent days it has moved more troops and military equipment into the area.

A retired Israeli army officer, Major-General Israel Ziv, said he believed Wednesday's assault was an attempt by Hezbollah to draw Israel more deeply into the war in Syria, where Hezbollah is fighting alongside forces loyal to President Assad.

"Israel understands that we need to contain things," he said. "Israel needs to protect its interests but not take any unnecessary steps that may pull us into the conflict in Syria."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made security his top priority ahead of parliamentary elections on March 17, said Israel was "prepared to act powerfully on all fronts," adding: "Security comes before everything else."

His office accused Iran of being behind what was described as a "criminal terror attack". Iran is a major funder of Hezbollah, a Shi'ite group headed by Hassan Nasrallah.

In Beirut, celebratory gunfire rang out after the attack, while residents in the southern suburbs of the city, where Hezbollah is strong, packed their bags and prepared to evacuate neighbourhoods that were heavily bombed by Israel in 2006.

In Gaza, Palestinian militant groups praised Hezbollah.

It remains to be seen whether Israel and Hezbollah, having both drawn blood, will back away from further confrontation. With Israel weeks away from an election and Hezbollah deeply involved in support of Assad in Syria, there would appear to be little interest in a wider conflict for either side.

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