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Balloons drifting from Israel into southern Lebanon sparked a panic among villagers over the weekend amid rumors they were filled with poison gas. The balloons were apparently part of an advertising campaign by a newspaper in northern Israel.
Results of tests conducted by UN peacekeepers in southern Lebanon showed the balloons did not contain any dangerous gases, a Lebanese security official said Monday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give statements to the media.
Haaretz reported Sunday that helium balloons from a promotional event by Ha'ir, a chain of local newspapers, had floated north over the border into Lebanon.
Still, their appearance spread alarm among Lebanese - a sign of the tensions and suspicion that remain in the border region after last summer's war between Israel and Hizbullah that devastated much of the south.
After the balloons were first discovered Saturday in the southern Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh, the Lebanese army issued a statement warning residents not to touch them, pending an investigation. Pictures of the green, orange and black balloons were splashed across newspapers over the weekend and on Monday.
The state-run National News Agency and the Al-Manar TV channel of the Hizbullah guerrilla group claimed the balloons contained toxic gas and had been dropped by Israeli military aircraft, further stoking public fears.
At least five people were hospitalized in southern Lebanon complaining of nausea, dizziness and low blood pressure following contact with the balloons, Lebanese newspaper reports and hospital officials said.
Khalil Malli, a resident of Nabatiyeh, was the first to discover the balloons, finding a bunch tied together with ribbon in his backyard. He told Lebanese media that a "suspicious smell" emanated from them and when he spotted the Hebrew writing he alerted police and journalists in the area.
Not long after, Malli and other members of his family began feeling lightheaded and nauseous and were taken to a hospital for treatment.
Rana Jouni, a journalist in southern Lebanon, reported feeling the same symptoms after a visit to the Malli home during which she took pictures of the balloons. She reported the same suspicious smell.
"About a half an hour after taking the pictures I began feeling dizzy and out of breath. Soon I couldn't breathe and then I felt my arms become numb," she told The Associated Press Monday from her bed at the Najda al-Shaabiya hospital in Nabatiyeh where she was admitted Saturday.
Dr. Samer Suleiman, an intensive care doctor at the hospital, said that although Jouni and the other patients complained of symptoms that are consistent with exposure to toxic gases, blood and urine tests did not reveal exposure to such gases.
"We have no explanation for it," Suleiman said of the contradiction between the patients' symptoms and test results.
Reports that balloons with Hebrew letters had popped up around Lebanon continued Monday, with one TV station reporting that balloons had appeared in Beirut. The report could not be immediately confirmed.
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