IAF jet 298 88.
(photo credit: AP)
Israeli jets fired in the air over a German intelligence-gathering ship off Lebanon's coast, German officials said Friday, as both countries continued to give different versions of what happened.
On Wednesday, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz spoke to his German counterpart Franz Josef Jung and vehemently denied reports that the IAF had shot on a German naval vessel off the Lebanese coast.
The ship in question, the 83-meter Alster, was not listed as part of the German flotilla sent to prevent weapons smuggling off the coast of Lebanon as part of the expanded UNIFIL peacekeeping force, Defense Ministry spokesman Thomas Raabe said.
Raabe said the Alster was 50 nautical miles (90 kilometers) off the coast in international waters when six Israeli F-16s flew over it and unaimed shots were fired in the air. The unarmed ship was there as part of efforts to protect the UNIFIL naval force, he said, noting that Israeli vessels had been hit with missiles during fighting with Hamas.
Asked what the motive for the jets' overflight was, he said, "I don't want to speculate. I don't think there is a serious background." He added that Israel had high security needs given the situation in the Middle East.
Raabe wouldn't say how Israel explained the incident to Germany's government. However, German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said the Israeli military's chief-of-staff had "expressed his regret" on Friday to his German counterpart.
"I don't expect any repeat of such an incident," Jung said late Friday on ZDF television.
Israel issued a statement saying that the planes approached a helicopter after it took off Tuesday from a German ship without notifying Israeli forces. The Israelis denied shots were fired.
"On Oct. 24 at 9 a.m., a German ship and a German helicopter were sighted near the shore at Rosh Hanikra. The helicopter did not have authorization to fly there and the air force deployed planes to the area," an Israeli statement said. "No shots were fired. We can't detail how many planes there were."
Asked about the helicopter, Raabe said: "I can only say that this helicopter was 60 kilometers from the Alster." He said the helicopter was carrying Adm. Andreas Krause, the German commander of UNIFIL's naval task force.
The matter was raised in the German parliament Friday by opposition lawmakers who opposed Germany's participation in the U.N. force for fear that German and Israeli troops could clash - a sensitive matter given Germany's role in perpetrating the Holocaust.
They demanded an explanation of what German personnel would do if overflown again by Israeli jets.
"This is exactly the situation we always warned about," Guido Westerwelle, leader of the opposition Free Democrats, told reporters afterward.
The Free Democrats also accused the government of misleading parliament about the mandate of the naval force and its freedom to act against suspected weapons shipments to Hezbollah guerrillas.
Jung confirmed German media reports that the force's ships are only allowed to operate within (10 kilometers) of the Lebanese coast at the request of Lebanese authorities, unless they are in hot pursuit of a suspect vessel.
Jung insisted the naval force could still be effective. Adm. Krause, he said, reported that cooperation with the Lebanese authorities was "splendid."
"We are not occupiers. It is about supporting the Lebanese army," Jung said.