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Israeli Soldier Killed in Gunfire Exchange - 2003-10-07

An Israeli soldier has been killed in an exchange of gunfire along the border with Lebanon. The soldier was shot dead Monday, one day after Israel took its war against terrorism to a new level by bombing Palestinian targets inside Syria.

Israel says the soldier was killed in an attack on a border patrol near the town of Metulla on Israel's northern border with Lebanon. His death brought to eight the number of soldiers killed since Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon in May 2000.

The Israeli army issued a statement saying the soldier was killed by weapons fire from Lebanon, and Israeli troops fired back at the attackers. Israeli military officials blamed the latest killing on the militant Islamic group Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran.

Hezbollah denied any involvement in the incident.

A few hours later, five mortars were fired from Lebanon, landing west of the town of Kiryat Shmona, in northern Israel. There were no reports of injuries. It was the first time mortars have been fired from Lebanon into Israel since April 2002.

The incidents come amid rising tensions in the Middle East. On Sunday, Israel bombed what it said was a training base for the Islamic Jihad inside Syria. The Israeli action came in response to a suicide bombing by Islamic Jihad on Saturday that killed at least 19 people, including four children, one of them a baby girl.

Israel's army commander in charge of the northern frontier with Lebanon, Major General Benny Gantz, denied that the killing of the soldier is linked to Israel's strike on Syria. He described the attack on his soldiers from Lebanon as a "local incident." At the same time, General Gantz warned Syria and Iran, which both have influence inside Lebanon, to act with caution, or there could be escalation of violence in the region.

Syria, which has more than 30,000 troops stationed inside Lebanon, is regarded as the country's main power broker.

Iran funds the Hezbollah in Lebanon, a group which is dedicated to Israel's destruction.