updated 11/9/2006 6:52:34 PM ET 2006-11-09T23:52:34

The French government demanded Thursday that Israel stop mock raids over Lebanon after French peacekeepers came within seconds of shooting down Israeli warplanes in what the defense minister called a near-catastrophe.

Israeli officials said the flights are needed to monitor Lebanese compliance with U.N. demands, and that they were working with the French-led U.N. peacekeeping force to avoid misunderstandings.

The incident incensed the French, drew attention to challenges facing the U.N. force and raised tensions three months into the shaky cease-fire that halted the Israel-Hezbollah war.

On Oct. 31, Israeli F-15 fighter planes nose-dived repeatedly over French peacekeepers’ positions in southern Lebanon, French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told lawmakers Wednesday night.

The planes were “in attack position,” a spokesman for the French general staff, Capt. Christophe Prazuck, told reporters. French troops responded by readying an anti-aircraft missile and were seconds away from firing, he said.

“Our troops barely avoided a catastrophe,” Alliot-Marie told parliament. “Our troops find themselves in a position where they have to fire in legitimate self-defense.”

Defense Ministry officials would not elaborate on why French troops decided not to fire or explain why they waited eight days to announce the incident.

The mock raids by warplanes over Beirut and other parts of Lebanon last week were Israel’s strongest show of force since its 34-day war with Hezbollah guerrillas ended on Aug. 14.

The French Defense Ministry and Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy demanded Thursday that the flights stop. The foreign minister also summoned the Israeli ambassador to express “serious concern” about the incident.

A challenge to UNIFIL’
“The overflights undermine the position of UNIFIL,” the U.N. peacekeeping force, said Nadim Shehadi at Chatham House, a London think tank. “It’s a challenge to UNIFIL.”

UNIFIL peacekeepers reported 14 Israeli air violations on Oct. 31, including three over the headquarters of the French battalion in the southern Lebanese town of Froun.

“It appears that these flights were deliberate. UNIFIL strongly protested to the Israeli authorities and asked them to cease these actions,” said Milos Strugar, senior adviser to the UNIFIL commander.

The U.N. peacekeeping chief in Lebanon, Maj. Gen. Alain Pelligrini of France, said last month that the flyovers violated the cease-fire resolution and warned that force might be used to stop them.

Israeli military officials reiterated Thursday that the flights are for intelligence gathering and are needed to monitor the Lebanese government’s compliance with the U.N. resolution that stopped the fighting. They said Lebanon has failed to prevent arms from being smuggled to the Islamic militant group Hezbollah.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said he could not confirm the Oct. 31 incident. “We are taking steps to improve coordination so that such a thing would not happen,” he said.

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