ADEISSEH, Lebanon — Lebanese and Israeli troops exchanged fire Tuesday in a fierce border battle that killed a senior Israeli officer, two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist.
It was the worst fighting in the area since 2006. Israeli and Lebanese soldiers patrol within shouting distance of each other, separated by the U.N.-drawn Blue Line boundary.
The fighting resulted in Israeli tank, helicopter and artillery strikes near this Lebanese town, but ended after several hours and there was no sign that either side was preparing to escalate.
Hezbollah, the Shiite guerrilla force, said it offered to help the Lebanese army but in the end did not get involved. But, warned Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah in a televised speech, his fighters would intervene if Israeli troops ever attack Lebanese forces again. Hezbollah's arsenal is far more powerful than the Lebanese army's.
The U.N. Security Council urged "utmost restraint." U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said, "The last thing that we want to see is this incident expand into something more significant." The United States and the United Nations said they were working to determine the exact circumstances of the fight.
The clash began after an Israeli soldier tried to remove a tree along the border, something the military has done in the past to improve its sight lines into Lebanon. Both sides claimed the tree was in their territory.
The tree was over the fence but still within Israeli territory, a spokesman for the Israeli military said. The tree-cutting was coordinated with the U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, UNIFIL, he said.
The Lebanese military said the Israelis crossed onto Lebanese soil despite calls from the United Nations and Lebanon to stop. When the Israelis persisted, Lebanese troops opened fire with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, it said in a statement.
Ronith Daher, 32, a Lebanese journalist on the scene, said she saw a UNIFIL peacekeeper ask Israelis not to allow the Israeli soldier to cross the fence and warned them the Lebanese troops would open fire. A number of journalists had gathered at the site after getting word UNIFIL was trying to resolve the situation.
Israel, however, accused Lebanon of provoking the fight. The Israeli military's northern commander, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, said that while soldiers were removing bushes by the fence, Lebanese military snipers shot two officers who were more than 300 yards away.
The Israelis responded with infantry, tanks and artillery fire. They also hit a Lebanese army base with helicopter and artillery fire, Eizenkot said.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak demanded Lebanon and UNIFIL investigate the "murderous attack." Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that Israel "will respond to any disturbance of the peace on the border and (attempts) to harm civilians and the soldiers protecting them."
A Lebanese journalist with the daily newspaper Al-Akhbar, Assaf Abu Rahhal, was killed when an Israeli shell landed next to him in Adeisseh, a security official said. Three civilians were wounded, including Adeisseh's mayor, said Ali Rahal, a local businessman.
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman urged the military to "confront any Israeli aggression whatever the sacrifices."
The border has been relatively quiet since the summer 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war left 1,200 Lebanese and about 160 Israelis dead. After the war, the United Nations beefed up its peacekeeping force to 12,000 members and the Lebanese military deployed in the border region for the first time in years.