BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Israeli warplanes staged mock raids Tuesday over Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut and two south Lebanese towns in the heaviest show of air power over Lebanon since the August cease-fire.
At least six times the Israeli fighter jets dived down to zoom low over Beirut’s southern suburbs before roaring up to the sky, Lebanese security officials said.
The planes did not open fire or drop bombs, but their roar caused concern among residents, some of whom took to the rooftops and balconies to watch.
It was not clear what prompted Israel to stage the mock raids, which lasted more than 30 minutes and were the biggest demonstration of Israeli power since its 34-day offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas ended on Aug. 14. The overflights came only hours after U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen told the Security Council that the Lebanese government had reported that arms were being smuggled into Lebanon from Syria.
The United Nations has repeatedly called on Israel to stop flying over Lebanon, saying it was violating the cease-fire. But Israel has said the flights would continue to prevent Hezbollah from rearming.
In Jerusalem on Tuesday, the Israeli military refused to confirm that its planes had flown over Beirut, saying it does not give operational details. The overflights also came a few hours before Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah was scheduled to appear on a Lebanese television channel. Nasrallah has been in hiding since the Israeli offensive began in July, appearing in public only once, on Sept. 22, to give a speech at a Hezbollah “victory rally.” Israeli officials have threatened to assassinate him.
Tuesday’s flights at Beirut’s international airport, which lies south of Beirut, were not affected by the Israeli mock raids.
The Lebanese security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give press statements, said eight Israeli jets had crossed the border and dispersed, flying over southern and central Lebanon, with some reaching south Beirut.
In south Lebanon, officials and witnesses reported Israeli planes staging mock raids over the towns of Nabatiyeh and Tyre.
The Lebanese army issued a statement saying its gunners fired anti-aircraft artillery at the planes in south Lebanon.
The army statement said four of the eight Israeli planes flew over southern Lebanon while the other four flew over the rest of the country including Beirut. Lebanon’s official National News Agency reported that the Israeli planes released hot air balloons to deflect heat-seeking missiles over southern Beirut. South Beirut was heavily bombed during the Israeli offensive, with entire city blocks being reduced to rubble as Israeli aircraft tried to hit Hezbollah officials and destroy their offices.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz told a parliamentary committee earlier this month that French troops in the U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon had warned Israel that their jets may not remain immune if they continue to violate Lebanese airspace. Israeli warplanes have flown over Lebanon for decades, gathering intelligence, making their presence known and sometimes setting off sonic booms over Beirut.