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Israeli planes menace Lebanese villages

BEIRUT — Israeli warplanes swooped low over Lebanese villages Sunday in a show of force apparently aimed at the Hezbollah guerrilla group after a mysterious raid by an unmanned aircraft that was shot out of Israeli skies over the weekend.

Israel was still investigating Saturday’s incident, but Hezbollah quickly emerged as the leading suspect because it has an arsenal of sophisticated Iranian weapons and a history of trying to deploy similar aircraft.

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The Israeli military said the drone approached Israel’s southern Mediterranean coast and flew deep into Israeli airspace before warplanes shot it down about 20 minutes later. Israeli news reports said the drone was not carrying explosives and appeared to be on a reconnaissance mission.

Military officials would not say where the drone originated or who produced it, but they ruled out the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by Hamas, a group not known to possess drones.

That left Hezbollah as the most likely culprit and suggested the drone may have flown with the blessing of Iran. Tensions are high between Israel and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program.

“It is an Iranian drone that was launched by Hezbollah,” Israeli lawmaker Miri Regev, a former chief spokeswoman for the Israeli military, wrote on her Twitter feed. “Hezbollah and Iran continue to try to collect information in every possible way in order to harm Israel.”

She did not offer any further evidence and was not immediately available for comment.

Hezbollah officials would not comment on speculation that the group had launched the drone.

The Israeli dailies Yediot Ahronot and Maariv published maps based on military “estimates” that showed the route allegedly taken by the drone.

The aircraft took off south of the Lebanese coastal city of Sidon, headed south, and then turned east over the Gaza Strip and into Israel, according to the maps. Yediot also said that the drone was made in Iran.

The Israeli military said it began tracking the aircraft over the Mediterranean but waited until it was over an empty, desert area to bring it down in order to avoid casualties on the ground.

Sunday’s Israeli air raids, buzzing over pro-Hezbollah villages in southern Lebanon, appeared to be aimed at reminding the guerrilla group of Israel’s air superiority.

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