updated 5/13/2005 12:08:00 PM ET 2005-05-13T16:08:00

Hezbollah and Israeli forces exchanged barrages of shells and rockets across the Lebanese border Friday, and Israeli warplanes struck guerrilla positions in the heaviest clash in months between the two sides.

The exchange began when Hezbollah fighters fired a volley of shells and rockets at Israeli positions in the disputed border area of Chebaa Farms, witnesses said. Israeli forces retaliated with artillery fire against the apparent source of the fire in the Lebanese village of Kfar Chouba.

Witnesses counted at least 45 Israeli shells.

Israeli warplanes struck two positions with missiles north and south of Kfar Chouba, and helicopter gunships struck a suspected Hezbollah outpost about 300 yards across the border from the Israeli town of Metullah, witnesses and reporters said.

An Israeli tank also fired at a Hezbollah observation post near the village of Rmeish, far from the combat near the Mediterranean coastline, they said.

There were no casualties from the Hezbollah fire, an Israeli military spokesman said. There was no immediate word on casualties on the Lebanese side from the Israeli retaliation.

The Israeli military said Hezbollah positions opened fire on Israeli outposts in the Har Dov area — Israel’s name for Chebaa Farms — with nine shells or rockets. Israeli troops retaliated with artillery and anti-tank rockets, destroying one guerrilla position, while an airstrike took out another Hezbollah post, the military said.

Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television said the attack was in retaliation for Israeli attacks on Lebanese territory, including a hit on civilian houses in the village of Kfar Chouba. It said the guerrillas used the “appropriate” weapons and scored a direct hit on the Roueissat el-Alam position.

“The Islamic Resistance warns the Zionist enemy that any attack on civilians will be met with the appropriate response,” the statement said.

Heaviest such clash since January
It was the heaviest clash between Israel and Hezbollah since January, when Hezbollah guerrillas blew up an Israeli bulldozer operating in Chebaa Farms and Israeli warplanes retaliated with strikes that wounded two Lebanese women.

Friday’s exchange followed days of sporadic shelling by both sides, which began when Israel mistakenly fired an artillery shell into Lebanon earlier this week while clearing explosives planted by the guerrillas near the border. The Israeli army said the shell fell in an open area, causing no damage or casualties.

The increase in tensions comes amid political turbulence in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s ally Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon last month, weakening Damascus’s hold in the country — while Hezbollah has been seeking a greater political role.

The guerrilla group’s long confrontation with Israel has been a major source of its popularity in Lebanon, even outside the country’s Shiite community.

Some 2,000 protesters at a Hezbollah-orchestrated demonstration near the U.S. Embassy in a northern Beirut suburb burst into cheers when news of the attack was announced. Demonstrators have gathered weekly to demand that Washington stop interfering in Lebanese affairs.

Hezbollah guerrillas sporadically attack Israeli forces in Chebaa Farms on the foothills of Mount Hermon where the borders of Syria, Lebanon and Israel meet. A U.N.-drawn border that followed Israel’s troop withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000 left the area under Israeli control, but Lebanon claims it. The United Nations says the region is part of Syria and occupied by Israel.

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