Israel strikes deeper into Lebanon after Hezbollah downs drone

Credit: REUTERS/AZIZ TAHER

Israeli warplanes strike Lebanon's Bekaa Valley

Israeli army says it responded to a drone being downed

Hostilities being waged in parallel to conflict in Gaza

Adds Hezbollah politician comment in paragraphs 7-8, comments by Israeli defence minister in paragraphs 12-13, analyst in paragraph 15

BEIRUT/JERUSALEM, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Israeli warplanes struck Lebanon's Bekaa Valley on Monday, killing at least two Hezbollah members in its deepest attack into Lebanese territory since hostilities erupted with the Iran-backed group last October, sources in Lebanon said.

The Israeli army said its fighter jets had struck Hezbollah air defences in the Bekaa Valley in response to the downing of an Israeli drone, which the Lebanese group said it had shot down with a surface-to-air missile.

The incidents marked an escalation of hostilities fought in parallel to the conflict in Gaza, heightening the risks of further escalation between heavily armed adversaries that last went to war in 2006.

The Israeli strikes hit a region near the Syrian border which is a political stronghold of the Shi'ite Islamist Hezbollah, some 18 km (11 miles) from the city of Baalbek, which is known for its ancient ruins.

The sources said Israel had carried out simultaneous strikes in the area. A Lebanese security source and a source familiar with the matter said two Hezbollah members had been killed.

Lebanese television station Al-Jadeed broadcast images of plumes of smoke rising from the area.

Hezbollah politician Hassan Fadlallah said Israel had widened its strikes by hitting Baalbek and other areas, and was seeking to "compensate" for the downing of its drone.

"Its aggression on Baalbek or any other areas will not remain without response," he said in televised remarks delivered at the funeral of a Hezbollah fighter killed in recent days.

An Israeli airstrike also hit a car in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah's al-Manar TV reported. A security source in Lebanon said at least one person had been killed.

The Israeli military said it would "continue operating to defend the State of Israel from the threat of Hezbollah terrorist organization, including in aerial operations above Lebanese territory".

Hezbollah has been waging a campaign of attacks on targets at the border with Israel since the Oct. 7 raid from the Gaza Strip by its Palestinian ally Hamas. Hezbollah describes it as an effort to support Palestinians under Israeli fire in Gaza.

ISRAEL SAYS TO 'INCREASE THE FIRE' ON HEZBOLLAH

The hostilities have largely played out in areas near the Lebanese-Israeli border, but last week widened when Israel struck an area just south of the coastal city of Sidon.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant indicated on Sunday that Israel planned to increase attacks on Hezbollah in the event of a possible ceasefire in the Gaza conflict.

"If a temporary pause is reached in Gaza, we will increase the fire in the north separately, and will continue until the full withdrawal of Hezbollah [from the border] and the return of Israeli citizens to their homes," he said.

The violence has uprooted tens of thousands of people on both sides of the border.

Hezbollah said earlier on Monday it had shot down an Israeli Hermes 450 drone over Lebanese territory with a surface-to-air missile.

The Israeli military said two missile launches had targeted an Israeli Air Force unmanned aerial vehicle operating over Lebanon. The first, it said, was intercepted by Israel's "David's Sling" Aerial Defense System but the drone "fell inside Lebanese territory" after a second launch.

Israeli strikes since October have killed some 50 civilians in Lebanon, in addition to some 200 Hezbollah fighters.

Attacks from Lebanon into Israel have killed a dozen Israeli soldiers troops and five civilians.

(Reporting by Maya Gebeily, Laila Bassam and Tom Perry in Beirut; Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by Angus MacSwan and Timothy Heritage)

((thomas.perry@thomsonreuters.com; Reuters Messaging: thomas.perry.reuters.com@reuters.net))

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