France ‘was seconds’ from downing Israeli jet

France and Israel are on a collision course in south Lebanon following incidents involving Israeli warplanes over- flying the positions of the French military contingent serving with the UN peacekeeping force there.

In the most serious confrontation, French troops were said by sources in Paris to have been “just two seconds” from launching an anti- aircraft missile at two Israeli F-15 fighters carrying out mock low-level attack runs over one outpost.

As this was happening, a pair of Israeli reconnaissance aircraft circled over the headquarters of the French battalion in the Jabal Maroun area, possibly taking aerial photographs there.

Even before these incidents occurred, French diplomatic sources had let it be known that President Jacques Chirac was urging Israel through diplomatic channels to halt their regular incursions into Lebanese air space.

The French officer in command of the 11,500-strong UN contingent, Major General Alain Pellegrini, made it clear that he considered these incursions violated the UN Security Council resolution that brought an end to last summer’s brief but bloody war between Israel and Hezbollah.

If diplomatic efforts should prove inadequate to resolve this issue, Pellegrini added, “maybe other means would have to be considered.” In private, French officials contend that the over-flights are designed to provoke Hezbollah into renewing its attacks on Israeli targets, opening the way for massive retaliation.

In response, Israeli sources accuse the French contingent of turning a blind eye to Hezbollah’s stealthy rearmament in breach of the UN resolution and doing little to prevent the guerrillas from reoccupying positions close to the border.

The recent announcement that Pellegrini will be replaced in overall command next month by an Italian general elicited a resounding “good riddance” from the Israeli high command, with one senior officer asserting that he had “turned pro-Hezbollah”.

Meanwhile, away from the frontline, officials from some 40 countries, the US, Britain and France among them, are meeting in Paris today to discuss efforts to raise some £1.4bn in aid and loans to Lebanon for the reconstruction of war damage and to ease the burden of the country’s enormous public debt ($40bn and climbing).

The talks began under the shadow of violent sectarian clashes in Beirut following a general strike called by Hezbollah and its political allies in a bid to topple the pro-Western government headed by Fouad Siniora.

On Thursday, four people were killed and twenty-five injured in further clashes between pro- and anti-government protesters.

Hezbollah’s fiery leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has warned that street protests will continue unless a new cabinet is formed that includes several ministers representing the opposition.

In that event, the prospect of another round of fighting with Israel, bringing further misery to ordinary Lebanese, could not be ruled out.