BEIRUT, Lebanon – Israeli fighter jets staged mock raids over Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut and two southern towns on Tuesday in the heaviest show of air power over Lebanon since an August cease-fire ended the war between Israel and the guerrillas.
The warplanes dived low over Beirut's southern suburbs at least six times before roaring back into the sky, Lebanese security officials said.
In south Lebanon, officials and witnesses reported Israeli planes staging mock raids over the towns of Nabatiyeh and Tyre.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give press statements, said eight Israeli jets had crossed the border and dispersed over southern and central Lebanon. Concerned residents took to rooftops and balconies to watch the mock raids over south Beirut.
The Lebanese army issued a statement saying its gunners fired anti-aircraft artillery at the planes in south Lebanon.
The army statement said four Israeli planes flew over southern Lebanon and four overflew the rest of the country, including Beirut.
Lebanon's official National News Agency reported that the Israeli planes released material to draw away heat-seeking missiles over southern Beirut.
The Israeli military refused to confirm that its planes had flown over Beirut or other areas, saying it does not release details of military operations.
Tuesday's show was the heaviest aerial incursion of Lebanon since the end of Israel's 34-day offensive against the Hezbollah militant group. Lebanon, with United Nations support, has frequently protested Israeli flights over its territory.
The war, which ended in a U.N.-brokered cease-fire on Aug. 14, killed more than 1,000 people — mostly Lebanese civilians.
The mock raids came only hours after U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen told the Security Council that the Lebanese government had reported that arms were being smuggled into Lebanon from Syria.
The operation also came a few hours before Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah was scheduled to appear on a Lebanese television channel.
Nasrallah has been in hiding since the Israeli offensive began in July, appearing in public only once, on Sept. 22, to give a speech at a Hezbollah "victory rally." Israeli officials have threatened to assassinate him.
South Beirut was heavily bombed during the Israeli offensive, with entire city blocks being reduced to rubble as Israeli aircraft tried to hit Hezbollah officials and destroy their offices.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz told a parliamentary committee earlier this month that French troops in the U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon had warned Israel that their jets may not remain immune if they continue to violate Lebanese airspace.
Israeli warplanes have flown over Lebanon for decades, gathering intelligence and making their presence known with sonic booms over Beirut.
Flights at Beirut's international airport, which lies south of the city, were not affected Tuesday.