BEIRUT, Oct 9 (Reuters) – Lebanese armed group Hezbollah fired rockets into northern Israel on Monday in retaliation for Israeli shelling in Lebanon that killed at least three of its members.
The exchange of fire marks a significant escalation of the conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants further north to the Israel-Lebanon border. Iran-backed Hezbollah 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 positions in the Galilee. The Israeli military has identified several “launches” from Lebanon into Israel, with no injuries. It said it retaliated with artillery strikes on Lebanon.
Hezbollah said in a series of online reports that three of its members were killed in an Israeli “occupation” in southern Lebanon on Monday afternoon. Two Lebanese security sources told Reuters two Hezbollah members were killed.
Israel shelled southern Lebanon on Monday after a cross-border attack by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, which has been fighting alongside Hamas since launching a surprise attack on Israel on Saturday.
The Israeli military said two gunmen who crossed the border with helicopter support were killed. A Hezbollah official had previously denied the group was involved in the cross-border attack.
Two sources close to Hezbollah said Israel’s deadly shelling of a Hezbollah observation post in southern Lebanon would draw a response from the group.
Hezbollah and Israel have been fighting sporadically along the border since 2006, avoiding a major conflict. They exchanged artillery and rocket fire on Sunday.
Some residents of southern Lebanon said they were fleeing their homes along the border with Israel on Monday, amid heavy shelling on the outskirts of towns and villages so far.
The state news agency reported that the evacuation of people from the border area has caused heavy traffic on major roads and that schools in the area will be closed on Tuesday.
The UN insists on control
A series of incidents in the past months had already raised the risk of an escalation along the Lebanese-Israeli border before fighting broke out in Israel and Gaza.
The Israeli military said in a statement that it “killed several armed suspects who infiltrated Israeli territory from Lebanese territory.” It did not elaborate on the figure.
The statement added that military helicopters were “currently carrying out strikes in the area”.
A security source in Lebanon and a source in Lebanon’s border area said a group approached the border after someone opened fire on an Israeli observation post.
Israel’s military radio said it was near Adamit, across the Lebanese border towns of Alma el-Saeb and Jahajra.
A spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission, whose head, Major General Lazaro, said it was “in touch with the parties concerned and urged maximum restraint”.
The Lebanese army confirmed the shelling in the border areas and asked people to be cautious in their movements.
Gabi Hage, a father of three who owns a house in Lebanon near the border, described heavy shelling near him.
“Our house is really close to the border, so we leave and go to the village. All my neighbors do the same,” he said.
The French consulate in Lebanon told its nationals to postpone any travel to southern Lebanon. Britain has also said tensions are high and the situation could escalate.
(This story has been corrected to say at least three people died in paragraphs 1 and 4 instead of four. Security sources are also correct in saying that a total of five people were killed in paragraph 4.)
Reporting by Laila Bassam, Taimur Azhari and Maya Kebili in Beirut and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; By Timur Azhari; Editing by Nick MacPhee, Tomasz Janowski and Toby Chopra
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