Israel Shoots Down Lebanese Civilian Plane

The Israeli air force shot down a small Lebanese civilian plane Thursday after it crossed into Israel's air space along the Mediterranean coast, the army said.

The pilot was believed to be the only person on board, and Israeli radio said he was killed Thursday, the first anniversary of Israel's military withdrawal from south Lebanon.

The Cessna plane took off from the Lebanese capital Beirut, and was spotted by the Israeli military as it crossed into Israel, the army said.

Israeli warplanes and helicopters made repeated attempts to contact the Cessna, but the pilot refused to respond or identify himself. After 15 minutes, the plane was shot down, said army spokesman Jacob Dallal.

"It took off from Beirut and turned in our direction and our air force went on the alert," Israeli Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey told Israeli radio. "As soon as it crossed the border it was accompanied by warplanes and attack helicopters."

There was apparently only one man on board, Kitrey said.

It was shot down north of Tel Aviv, the military added.

In Beirut, airport officials were investigating the "lost contact" with a small rented plane along its southern coast when news of the shooting in Israel broke.

The Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah said on their radio station that the pilot was Istefan Nikolian, and he was flying a civilian training plane.

The radio station did not say whether he was linked to Hezbollah, which fought Israel's forces for years in south Lebanon. Nikolian arrived in Lebanon on Wednesday from Cyprus, Hezbollah radio said.

The Israeli army was on alert for possible attacks by Hezbollah on the anniversary of Israel's May 24, 2000, withdrawal.

Hezbollah has continued to carry out occasional attacks on a disputed patch of land along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

The Israelis also say that Hezbollah has been assisting the Palestinians with their uprising against the Israelis.

Since the latest outbreak of fighting in late September, more than 470 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 85 on the Israeli side.

A diplomatic push began this week to halt the violence with the release of a truce plan proposed by an international commission headed by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell. But there's been no letup in the daily clashes, mostly in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian militants lobbed mortars at a Jewish settlement Thursday and Israeli tanks responded by rumbling into Palestinian territory, firing shells and machine guns.