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French UN troops 'seconds' away from firing at Israeli aircraft over Lebanon

AFP | November 9, 2006

French United Nations troops were "two seconds" away recently from firing at Israeli aircraft diving towards their position in southern Lebanon, Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said in parliament.

"Two seconds later there would have been a shot against the aircraft which were directly menacing our forces," Alliot-Marie said.

"A catastrophe was avoided thanks to the judiciousness of our troops," she added.

The incident occurred on October 31, the defence ministry told AFP, without giving the exact location.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said that a caution would be given to the Israeli authorities, saying that "Israeli flights over southern Lebanon are a source of serious concern".

"When Israeli aircraft recently 'dived' on French UNIFIL soldiers, it is a miracle that nothing serious happened, because there could have been a response on the part of French troops," Douste-Blazy said.

The foreign ministry gave no details on the form that the caution would take.

Alliot-Marie had warned last month that Israeli air violations in Lebanon were "extremely dangerous" and must end in the interest of all parties.

French President Jacques Chirac had also urged Israel to stop violating Lebanon's air space.

Alliot-Marie spoke on October 20 to reporters after holding talks with UN chief Kofi Annan and Jean-Marie Guehenno, the French head of the UN peacekeeping operations, that focused on the Israeli intrusions into Lebanese air space.

"These violations are extremely dangerous because they may be felt as hostile by forces of the coalition that could be brought to retaliate in case of self-defense and it would be a very serious incident," the French minister had said.

She was reacting to a suggestion made by the commander of UN troops in Lebanon, French General Alain Pellegrini, that the rules of engagement for his forces might have to be changed to allow the use of force to stop the Israeli air violations.

"If the diplomatic means should not be enough, maybe it could be considered other ways," Pellegrini added, referring to the possible use of anti-aircraft missiles by French forces in Lebanon.

But he noted that such a move would require "new rules of engagement drafted and decided here (at UN headquarters)".

He insisted that the Israeli air violations were a "clear violation" of Security Council resolution 1701 which ended the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon in August.

That resolution also called for the disarming of Hezbollah guerrillas and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon.

Alliot-Marie stressed at the time that the ground-to-air missiles protecting the French contingent in the UN mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL) were exclusively for self-defense.

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