Beirut (AFP) – Lebanon condemned an Israeli “aggression” after two drones Sunday targeted the Beirut stronghold of the Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah, warning of further regional tensions.
Hezbollah, considered a terrorist organisation by Israel and the United States, is a major political actor in Lebanon and a key backer of the Damascus regime in war-torn Syria.
The early morning incident in south Beirut came hours after Israel said it had conducted air strikes in neighbouring Syria to prevent an Iranian force from launching an attack on the Jewish state.
A war monitor said the air raids in the southeast of Damascus killed two Hezbollah members and one Iranian among five fighters.
The Shiite movement and Israel have upped their belligerent rhetoric in recent months, after fighting several wars the last of which was in 2006.
Lebanon’s army said “two drones belonging to the Israeli enemy violated Lebanese airspace… over the southern suburbs of Beirut”, a Hezbollah stronghold in the capital.
“The first fell while the second exploded in the air causing material damage,” he said.
Questioned by AFP, the Israeli army declined to comment on the Lebanese claim about the drones.
Earlier a Hezbollah spokesman, Mohamed Afif, insisted his movement did not shoot down either of the two drones but said that one had damaged a Hezbollah media centre.
“The first drone fell without causing damage while the second one was laden with explosives and exploded causing huge damage to the media centre,” Afif said.
“The first drone did not explode and it is now in the possession of Hezbollah which is analysing it.”
– ‘Threat to regional stability’ –
An AFP correspondent saw security forces deployed in the area of the incident.
Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah, said the drone incursion targeted “stability and peace in Lebanon and the region”.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is one of the Shiite group’s most prominent political opponents, condemned a “blatant attack on Lebanon’s sovereignty”.
“This new aggression… forms a threat to regional stability and an attempt to push the situation towards more tension,” he said.
Hariri also charged that it was in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 that ended the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
That 33-day war killed 1,200 in Lebanon and 160 in Israel.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who has repeatedly warned Israel against carrying out attacks, was expected to speak at a pre-scheduled event later Sunday.
Just hours before, the Israeli military said it had been able late Saturday to thwart an attempt by an Iranian force to attack northern Israel with drones using explosives.
Since the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011, Israel has conducted hundreds of strikes in Syria, most of them against what it says are Iranian and Hezbollah targets.
But it rarely acknowledges its actions so swiftly, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, warning arch-foe Iran it had no immunity from his state’s military.
– ‘Iran has no immunity anywhere’ –
Military spokesman Jonathan Conricus said the Israeli attack struck in Aqraba, southeast of Damascus, and targeted “terror targets and military facilities belonging to the Quds force (of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards) as well as Shiite militias”.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the attack had killed two Hezbollah members, an Iranian and two fighters.
But a high-ranking official in Tehran denied Iranian positions had been hit.
“This is a lie and it is not true,” Mohsen Rezaie, the secretary of the Expediency Council, told ILNA news agency
A Syrian military source quoted by the state news agency said: “At 2330 (2030 GMT), anti-aircraft defences detected enemy targets from Golan heading towards the area around Damascus”.
“The aggression was immediately confronted and so far the majority of the enemy Israeli missiles have been destroyed before reaching their targets.”
In a statement issued just minutes after the army announced its attack, Netanyahu hailed what he termed a “major operational effort” in thwarting an attack.
“Iran has no immunity anywhere,” Netanyahu said. “Our forces operate in every sector against the Iranian aggression.“
Conricus said while Iranian forces had launched rockets and missiles at Israel from Syria three times during 2018, the use of “kamikaze” attack drones was a new and “different tactic”.
The Jewish state insists it has the right to target positions held by Iran and its ally Hezbollah out of self-defence.