- The Washington Times - Friday, January 31, 2003

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 31 (UPI) — Israeli warplanes intensified their reconnaissance sorties over Lebanon for the second consecutive day Friday, prompting Lebanese and U.N. officials to warn against escalation ahead of a possible U.S.-led war on Iraq.

A Lebanese Army statement said six Israeli jets violated Lebanese airspace and flew over the southern region and the eastern Bekaa Valley. The statement said the warplanes returned to Israel after a 40-minute overflight deep into Lebanon.

Israel occupied parts of south Lebanon for 22 years until they withdrew in May 2000.

On Thursday night, Israeli jets carried out intensive mock raids over southern Lebanon, reaching the city of Sidon. Lebanese Army forces fired anti-aircraft machine guns at the jets.

Lebanese Defense Minister Khalil Hrawi said Israel's actions were an echo of "the victory scored by (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon and the extremist wing" in Israel's general elections earlier this week.

He said Israel was provoking tension, and was "trying to play a role in the Iraqi crisis as it wants to be present in the Middle East scene through its military force."

Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud called the sorties "an aggression on Lebanon's sovereignty."

Timor Goksel, a spokesman of the U.N. Interim Force in South Lebanon, said the Israeli violations could lead to unwanted tension in the region.

Israel's violations came as the U.N. Security Council approved Thursday the extension of UNIFIL's mandate for another six months. The body monitors the so-called 'blue line' and ensures Israel stays on its side of the border.

There have been fears Israel's actions could spark a response from the militant Hezbollah group. The group's activities forced Israel out of south Lebanon.

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