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MILITARY

UN peacekeeper from Spain killed in Lebanon

Updated: Spain on Wednesday said Israeli fire had killed a Spanish UN peacekeeper serving in south Lebanon, and called on the United Nations to fully investigate the violence.

The Security Council condemned the death of 36-year-old Spanish corporal Francisco Javier Soria Toledo who died from wounds sustained during an exchange of fire between Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters on the border.

"It is clear that this was because of the escalation of the violence and it came from the Israeli side," Spanish Ambassador Roman Oyarzun told reporters of the death of the soldier from Malaga, the 13th Spanish soldier to die in Lebanon.

Spain asked for a full investigation during an emergency meeting of the council called by France to discuss ways to defuse tensions between Israel and Lebanon.

The violence raised fears of another all-out conflict between the two countries, who fought a month-long war in 2006, in a region already wracked by fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for "maximum calm and restraint," urging all sides to "act responsibly to prevent any escalation in an already tense regional environment," a UN statement said.

Tension in the area has been building, especially after an Israeli air strike on the Syrian sector of the Golan Heights killed six Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general on January 18th.

"Our objective is to engage toward de-escalation and to prevent further escalation of the situation," French Ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters.

France presented a draft statement to council members but after meeting for over an hour, the council issued a terse condemnation of the peacekeeper's death and made no mention of de-escalation efforts.

Discussions on the council statement were continuing. 

Exchange of fire

The clashes began when Hezbollah fired an anti-tank missile at a military convoy in the Israel-occupied border area, prompting Israel to respond with air and ground strikes. 

The 36-year-old Spanish corporal serving in the UN interim force Unifil in southern Lebanon was killed in the exchange of fire.

The 10,000-strong Unifil mission said it had observed six rockets fired towards Israel from southern Lebanon and that Israeli forces "returned artillery fire in the same general area."

Senior peacekeeping official Edmond Mulet told council members that the attacks were a "serious violation" of ceasefire agreements and that Unifil had launched an investigation, according to a diplomat present at the council meeting.

Israel's ambassador to the United Nations warned in a letter that Israel was ready to take all necessary measures to defend itself and demanded that the council condemn Hezbollah.

"Israel will not stand by as Hezbollah targets Israelis," wrote Ron Prosor in a letter to the council also sent to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Israel occupied parts of Lebanon for 22 years until 2000 and the two countries are still technically at war.

In 2006, Israel fought a bloody war against Hezbollah that killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and some 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy expressed on Twitter his "great sadness at the death of a Spanish soldier in Lebanon".

Spain's Defence Minister Pedro Morenes, who was flying to India for a three-day visit when the news came through, cancelled the trip and returned to Spain mid-flight, the defence ministry said.

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MILITARY

Spain drops probe into ex-military WhatsApp ‘kill squad’

Spanish prosecutors have dropped an investigation into messages posted in a WhatsApp group of retired military officers that denounced Spain's left-wing government and discussed shooting political adversaries.

Spain drops probe into ex-military WhatsApp 'kill squad'
Photo: JOSEPH EID / AFP

The group was made up of high-ranking retired members of the air force with some of the messages leaked in December to the Infolibre news website, sparking public outrage.

The messages focused on the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, whose Socialists rule alongside the hard-left Podemos in Spain’s first coalition government since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

“I don’t want these scoundrels to lose the elections. No. I want them and all of their offspring to die,” wrote one.

“For them to die, they must be shot and 26 million bullets are needed,” wrote another, referring to the number of people who cast their ballots in favour.

Prosecutors opened their investigation in mid-December after finding the statements were “totally contrary to the constitutional order with veiled references to a military coup”.

But they dropped the probe after concluding the content of the chat did not constitute a hate crime by virtue of the fact it was a private communication.

“Its members ‘freely’ expressed their opinions to the others ‘being confident they were among friends’ without the desire to share the views elsewhere,” the Madrid prosecutors office said.

The remarks constituted “harsh” criticism that fell “within the framework of freedom of expression and opinion,” it said.

The decision is likely to inflame protests that erupted in mid-February over the jailing of a Spanish rapper for tweets found to be glorifying terrorism, a case that has raised concerns over freedom of speech in Spain.

According to Infolibre, some of the chat group also signed a letter by more than 70 former officers blaming the Sanchez government for the “breakdown of national unity” that was sent to Spain’s King Felipe VI in November.

Such remarks echo criticism voiced by Spain’s rightwing and far-right opposition that has denounced the government for courting separatist parties in order to push legislation through parliament where it only holds a minority.

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