Israel, Germany at odds over Lebanon air incident
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel denied a German newspaper report on Wednesday that two of its air force planes had fired twice as they flew over a German navy ship patrolling the Lebanon coast as part of an international peacekeeper force.
Germany's Defense Ministry said an incident had occurred, without giving details.
The German daily Der Tagesspiegel quoted a German junior defense minister as telling a parliamentary committee two Israeli F-16 fighters had flown low over the ship, firing twice.
The jets also activated infra-red countermeasures to ward off any rocket attack, the paper quoted him as saying, in an advance release from Thursday's edition.
"There was no such incident," an Israeli military spokeswoman said.
Israeli air force patrols over Lebanon have come under international scrutiny since a U.N.-brokered truce on Aug 14 ended a month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.
French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie last week described the overflights as "extremely dangerous" because they could be mistakenly perceived as hostile to the boosted U.N. peacekeeper force in southern Lebanon and trigger a response.
Israel has rebuffed such warnings, saying the Lebanese overflights are needed to monitor arms smuggling to Hezbollah.
The Israeli military spokeswoman said the German statements appeared to refer to an incident that took place on Tuesday.
Jets were scrambled when a helicopter took off from a German aircraft carrier close to Israeli waters without identifying itself. The pilots of the planes realized the mistake, did not engage the helicopter and returned home, the spokeswoman said.
Israel's Channel Two television said that, in a separate incident off the Lebanese coast, Israeli warplanes deployed chaff and this may have been detected by the German navy.
Germany assumed command of a U.N. naval force off Lebanon 10 days ago, and has sent eight ships and 1,000 service personnel to join the international peace operation in the region.
The naval force is charged with preventing weapons smuggling and helping maintain a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz's office said he telephoned his German counterpart, Franz Josef Jung, to reassure him that the air force did not and would not carry out any hostile fire or maneuvers around German naval vessels.
Peretz called for improved military coordination between Israel and Germany's forces in Lebanon. Jung is due to visit Israel next week for high-level talks, Peretz's office said.
Nevertheless, according to separate reports in German newspapers on Wednesday which did mention the Israel incident the German force's operational remit was to be restricted.
Die Sueddeutsche Zeitung and Die Welt said in previews of their Thursday editions the U.N. had agreed with Lebanon that the German vessels' movements should be limited to areas at least six nautical miles away from the Lebanese coast.
The papers cited a U.N. document showing an agreement had been struck with the participation of German diplomats that the German forces would only be allowed to operate within the six mile zone with Lebanon's permission.
Moreover, German forces could only board other ships in the presence of their Lebanese counterparts, it said.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Schmoll, Dave Graham and Iain Rogers in Berlin)
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