BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Lebanon said Saturday it was committed to building up its armed forces after complaints by Israel about Western assistance to the military following a deadly border clash between the two countries.
Two Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist and a senior Israeli officer were killed in a rare cross-border skirmish on Tuesday, the worst such violence since a 2006 war between Israel and Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas.
The clash — in which Lebanon and Israel gave different accounts of what happened — raised fears of wider conflict. Both countries have since worked to calm tension at the border.
Speaking in the southern Lebanese village of Adaisseh where the clash occurred, President Michel Suleiman said the cabinet would meet to ratify a three- or five-year plan to arm the military “so that it can protect the nation’s dignity.”
“The government will put forth a plan to arm the army regardless of the position of some countries,” Suleiman was quoted as saying by the National News Agency. He did not say when the plan would be approved.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he had spoken to France and the United States about the Jewish state’s worries.
“We think it is a mistake to arm the Lebanese army with weapons, with advanced systems,” Barak said in an interview with Israel Radio earlier this week.
“Because these things are liable to be — we used to describe the danger that these things would end up in Hezbollah hands, but before our eyes something more troubling is happening, and they are being used directly by the Lebanese army against us.”
Asked whether Paris or Washington had paid attention to Israel’s complaint, Barak said: “Not really. Not really.
Hezbollah did not take part in the clash, although its leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, said his powerful Shi’ite guerrillas would intervene if Israel attacked the army again.
By Israel’s account of Tuesday’s events, a Lebanese army sniper hit two Israeli officers as they watched a tree-pruning operation on the security fence below the U.N. “Blue Line.” The Lebanese army said it first fired warning shots, then Israelis fired at their soldiers. Israeli artillery and tank fire followed.
The United States has provided more than $720 million in assistance to the Lebanese army since 2006, according to the U.S. embassy website.
In Washington, asked whether the United States was confident the Lebanese army was not being “manipulated by any particular political group,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said:
“We are, as we’ve said many times, we’re in support of the civilian government in Lebanon,” he said according to a transcript of an August 5 daily press briefing.
“And we think improving the capability and performance of the Lebanese government, both across the government, but including in the security sector, contributes to stability in the region and is in our interest.”