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Israeli soldiers involved in skirmish

Israeli troops shot two Lebanese soldiers early on Monday, hours after a Lebanese army sniper killed an Israeli soldier as he drove along the volatile border late at night, the Israeli military said.

The shootings raised the possibility of renewed fighting in the area, which has remained mostly quiet since a monthlong war in the summer of 2006, though an Israeli defence official said Israel had no interest in further escalation.

Relations between Lebanon and Israel are so fraught with tensions that any incident risks sparking a major conflagration. The two have been officially at war since Israel's creation in 1948. Each country bans its citizens from visiting the other, and there are no direct trade ties between the two.

In the incident late Sunday, Israeli soldier Shlomi Cohen, 31, was fatally shot by a Lebanese army sniper near the tourist site of Rosh Hanikra on the Mediterranean Sea, the Israeli military said.

Late Monday, the Lebanese army said the original shooting was the result of "individual behaviour by one of the soldiers."

It said a military committee was investigating the incident and was co-ordinating with the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon to deal with the fallout from the shooting. With the sniper in custody, there was no word on a motive for the shooting and no mention of the two soldiers allegedly shot by Israel. The Lebanese army stressed its full commitment to U.N. resolutions, including maintaining a cease-fire that ended the 2006 war.

Hezbollah, the guerrilla group that waged the war seven years ago, did not appear to be involved in the incident.

Israeli army spokeswoman Lt. Libby Weiss said that in the wake of the death of the Israeli soldier, Israeli forces identified "suspicious movement" along the border just after midnight, and shot two members of Lebanon's armed forces. The shooting occurred near where Cohen was killed, she said but had no details on the condition of the Lebanese.

Lebanon's NNA said Israeli troops opened fire on a forested area on the Lebanese side of the border around 1 a.m. local time. The news agency did not report any Lebanese casualties.

Israel protested the "outrageous breach of Israel's sovereignty" with U.N. peacekeeping forces in Lebanon and heightened its state of preparedness, said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman.

He stressed Israel's "right to exercise self-defence," but also said, "we have no interest in further escalation of violence."

Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel would be meeting with the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, to request an explanation from the Lebanese army about whether the soldier acted on his own and what it would do to prevent such incidents in the future.

He said Israel considers "the Lebanese government and the Lebanese army responsible for what happens on their side."

Israel and Lebanon remain enemy countries with no diplomatic relations. Their armies do not communicate directly but in cases of increased tension exchange messages through a U.N. intermediary. Generally, Israeli army officials and Lebanese army officials sit in adjacent rooms, with U.N. representatives shuttling messages from room to room.

UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti said the peacekeeping forces was investigating the incidents and was in touch with both sides. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement that both sides were "co-operating with the United Nations ... to ascertain the facts" and urged restraint.

The Canadian Press


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