August 25, 2019 / 1:26 PM / 23 days ago

WRAPUP 3-Hariri says Israeli drones in Beirut attempt to stir Middle East tensions

* Lebanon says Israeli drones threaten sovereignty

* First such insident in more than 10 years

* Tensions rise in Middle East (Adds Hizbollah spokesman comments, Israeli military)

By Ellen Francis and Maayan Lubell

BEIRUT/JERUSALEM, Aug 25 (Reuters) - Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said two Israeli drones which crashed in a suburb of Beirut dominated by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah were designed to stir up regional tensions.

One drone fell and second exploded before dawn and caused some damage to Hezbollah’s media centre in the southern Dahiyeh suburbs, a Hezbollah official told Reuters, in the first such incident since the two sides waged war in 2006.

“The new aggression...constitutes a threat to regional stability and an attempt to push the situation towards further tension,” Hariri said in a statement from his office.

The Israeli military declined to comment.

A spokesman for Lebanon’s Hezbollah group said that Israeli drones that fell in Beirut had certain “targets” which investigations had so far not established.

Hezbollah’s media officer Muhammad Afif told reporters in televised comments that the group’s “position in response to this aggression” would come in the speech of the group’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah later on Sunday.

The incident took place hours after the Israeli military said its aircraft had struck Iranian forces and Shi’ite militias near Syria’s capital Damascus which it said had been planning to launch “killer drones” into Israel.

War monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said two members of Hezbollah, one Iranian and two more people of an unknown identity were killed in the Israeli strikes.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, told reporters “a number of attack drones”, each armed with several kilogrammes of explosives, were to have been launched simultaneously at targets in northern Israel on Thursday but the plan was thwarted.

He did not disclose what measures Israel took that day. He described the “killer drones” - designed to slam into targets - as highly accurate. Conricus said the drones, accompanied by “Iranian operatives”, had arrived at Damascus airport from Iran several weeks ago and were taken to a Quds-controlled compound in a village southeast of the city.

Israel carried out Saturday’s attack, Conricus said, after learning that another attempt to launch drones was imminent.

“KILL HIM FIRST”

“Iran has no immunity anywhere. Our forces operate in every sector against the Iranian aggression,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Twitter. “If someone rises up to kill you, kill him first.”

In Tehran, a senior Revolutionary Guards commander denied that Iranian targets had been hit in the Israeli air strikes in Syria, the semi-official ILNA news agency reported.

Israel deems Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah movement as the biggest threat across its border. They fought a month-long conflict in 2006 in which nearly 1,200 people, mostly civilians, died in Lebanon and 158 people died in Israel, mostly soldiers.

Lebanon has complained to the United Nations about Israeli planes regularly violating its airspace in recent years.

Residents in Dahiyeh said they heard a blast. A witness said the army shut the streets where a fire had started. A Hezbollah spokesman told Lebanon’s NNA news agency the second drone was carried explosives causing serious damage to the media centre.

Hezbollah is now examining the first drone, he said. The Lebanese army said that one Israeli drone fell and another exploded at 02:30 am local time (2330 GMT), causing only material damage.

Israel has grown alarmed by the rising influence of its regional foe Iran in the war in neighbouring Syria, where Tehran and Hezbollah provide military help to Damascus. Israel says its air force has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria against what it calls Iranian targets and arms transfers to Hezbollah.

Iran and Hezbollah are helping President Bashar al-Assad in the eight-year-old Syria war. Russia, which also aids Assad, has largely turned a blind eye to the Israeli air strikes.

Syrian state media said air defences confronted the attack and the army said most of the Israeli missiles were destroyed.

The United States and Iran are at odds over Tehran’s nuclear programme and the Gulf, with both sides trading accusations over threats to the strategic waterway’s security.

Iran also has wide sway in Iraq. Iraq’s paramilitary groups on Wednesday blamed a series of recent blasts at their weapons depots and bases on the United States and Israel.

The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a grouping of Iraq’s mostly Shi’ite paramilitary groups, said the United States had allowed four Israeli drones to enter the region accompanying U.S. forces and carry out missions on Iraqi territory.

Netanyahu has hinted of possible Israeli involvement in attacks against Iranian-linked targets in Iraq.

On the Israeli YNet news website, military affairs commentator Ron Ben-Yishai described the alleged Iranian killer drone attack plans as revenge by Tehran for the purported Israeli drone strikes in Iraq.

Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, said neither Iran nor Israel were interested in all-out war.

“We’re not there yet,” he said on Israel Radio. “But sometimes, someone makes a mistake.”

Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington, Leila Bassam, Sulaiman Al-Khalidi, Stephen Farrell, and Kinda Makieh and Samar Hassan; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean

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