BEIRUT, Lebanon – Hezbollah handed over a man suspected of firing at a Lebanese army helicopter into military authorities, a judicial official said Friday, amid media reports that the fatal shooting was a mistake by the militant group.
Military court magistrate Jean Fahd refused to identify the suspect, but told The Associated Press that Hezbollah turned him over to authorities as the person who opened fire at the helicopter.
A Lebanese army navigator was killed by the gunshots Thursday in the country's south and the helicopter made an emergency landing.
Fahd's announcement came hours after a top Lebanese newspaper reported that Hezbollah had opened fire at the helicopter mistaking it for an Israeli craft in Hezbollah's stronghold of Iqlim al-Tuffah where the group is believed to have bases and concealed positions.
The As-Safir daily quoted unidentified "multiple sources" as saying that gunmen mistook the helicopter for an Israeli aircraft dropping off soldiers in southern Lebanon. The paper often receives leaked information from the Shiite militant group.
Hezbollah, meanwhile, described the shooting in a statement Friday as "very unfortunate and painful."
The group added the case is now in the hands of the judiciary and that Hezbollah will cooperate to the "maximum extent" with the army in the investigation. It did not say whether its members had been involved and would not comment further.
A senior military officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the investigation was ongoing and there was no comment on the media report.
Hundreds of people took part in the emotional funeral Friday of the slain navigator, 1st Lt. Samer Hanna, who was buried in his hometown of Tanourin, north of Beirut. Some in the angry crowd spoke out against Hezbollah, blaming it for the killing.
Another daily, Al-Akhbar, said a joint committee of the army and Hezbollah opened an investigation into the incident.
The shooting has raised political tensions in the country. If Hezbollah guerrillas were behind it, this could be used by the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority to increase their calls for Hezbollah to disarm.
Strong Hezbollah critic and former legislator Fares Soeid asked whether the "Lebanese army needs permission to fly over Lebanese territories."
Speaking Thurdsday to reporters, he wondered whether there is a "border between the state of Lebanon and the state of Hezbollah."
Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Kabbani, the spiritual leader of Lebanon's Sunni Muslims, described the incident as "an aggression against the army." Defense Minister Elias Murr said he will accept "nothing less" than handing over and arresting the perpetrator.
As-Safir said the shooting resulted from a "lack of coordination" on the helicopter flight. The army and Hezbollah often inform each other of their movements.
Hezbollah was the only militia allowed to keep its weapons after the end of the 1975-90 civil war, on the grounds it was fighting Israeli troops occupying part of Lebanon until 2000.
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