(photo credit: AP)
The Security Council and the new secretary-general expressed deep concern Thursday at the first clashes between Israeli and Lebanese forces following last year's war between Israel and Hizbullah and appealed to all parties to observe a UN-brokered ceasefire.
Neither the council nor Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made an immediate assessment of blame for Wednesday night's exchange of fire - but it appeared that an Israeli bulldozer did not cross the Blue Line, the border drawn by the United Nations after Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000 after an 18 years.
The border between Lebanon, Israel and Syria remains in dispute, but the Blue Line is referred to in the ceasefire resolution adopted by the Security Council on Aug. 11 at the end of the 34-day Israeli-Hizbullah war.
Lebanon's Prime Minister Fuad Saniora on Thursday denounced what he called Israel's violation of the Blue Line near the village of Maroun el-Rass, scene of heavy fighting in the war. The bulldozer drove about 20 meters (22 yards) into Lebanon, Lebanese military officials said.
But Slovakia's UN Ambassador Peter Burian, the current council president, said Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guehenno told members at a closed briefing Thursday that "there was no violation of the Blue Line."
Liam McDowell, a spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon known as UNIFIL, said the exchange of fire was "initiated by the Lebanese army" when the Israeli bulldozer crossed a "technical fence" to clear mines.
That "technical fence" was built by the Israelis in their territory but it is not at the Blue Line, and Israel controls additional territory between the fence and the UN-drawn border.
UN spokesman Michele Montas said the exchange of fire was initiated by the Lebanese armed forces after an Israeli bulldozer "crossed the technical fence in an apparent attempt to clear the area between the technical fence and the Blue Line of mines."
The Security Council said it looked forward to ascertaining "all the facts" from UNIFIL and to a forthcoming tripartite meeting of UN, Lebanese and Israeli military officers requested by the UNIFIL Commander, Maj. -Gen. Claude Graziano.
"The members of the council expressed deep concern about this incident," a council statement said. "The members ... appealed to all parties to respect the Blue Line in its entirety, to exercise utmost restraint and to refrain from any action that could further escalate the situation."
When the clash began, Montas said Graziano "was in contact with both sides, urging them to cease hostilities immediately," and both sides stopped.
Ban expressed deep concern at the exchange of fire which violated the ceasefire resolution and endangered "the fragile calm that prevails in southern Lebanon," Montas said.
"The secretary-general calls on all parties to exercise maximum restraint, avoid provocative actions and display responsibility" in implementing the ceasefire resolution, she said.
Security Council diplomats said Qatar and South Africa held up approval of the press statement because it did not blame anyone for the clash.
"It doesn't say who started what, so that's why we thought it's a very incomplete statement," said South Africa's UN Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo.