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Austria's foreign minister urges for pause in Mideast fighting for Muslim holy month of Ramadan

Austria's Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg on Thursday urged both Israel and Hezbollah to avoid escalating tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border.

Austria’s foreign minister on Thursday urged Israel and Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group against escalating the conflict along the volatile Israel-Lebanon border and expressed hope for a pause in the fighting in Gaza in time for the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in March.

The Middle East has witnessed enough devastation and cruelty, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said after meeting his Lebanese counterpart in Beirut.

Schallenberg said he came to Lebanon after visiting Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

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Overnight, Israeli airstrikes on Lebanese villages along the southern border killed two people and wounded 14 others in the village of Kafra, state-run National News Agency reported. The dead were identified as older civilians Hussein Hamdan and his wife Manar Abbadi, whom the local Al-Jadeed TV said had returned home a few hours before the strike after they were displaced for months. No reason was given for their return home amid the violence.

Meanwhile, an Israeli drone strike hit a truck near the western Syrian town of Qusair close to the Lebanese border on Thursday, killing a Hezbollah member, according to Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, and a Hezbollah official. The Hezbollah official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Since the Israel-Hamas war started on Oct. 7, after Palestinian militants stormed parts of southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking 250 others hostage, Hezbollah started attacking Israeli posts, drawing return fire from Israel in daily exchanges. More than 210 Hezbollah fighters and nearly 40 civilians have been killed since then on the Lebanese side.

In Israel, nine soldiers and nine civilians have been killed in Hezbollah attacks since Oct. 7.

European and American officials have tried to ease the tensions in visits to Beirut, to avoid a full-blown war between Israel and Hezbollah, which has said it won't discuss any deals before the war in Gaza ends.

"Everybody is asked not to escalate and it always takes two sides," Schallenberg said.

The Hezbollah-Israel exchanges have mostly focused on the stretches along the border, but on Monday, Israel’s air force attacked areas near the northeastern city of Baalbek after Hezbollah fighters shot down an Israel drone flying over Lebanon. Israel was also blamed for a strike in Beirut in January that killed top Hamas official Saleh Arouri.

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"The region has accounted enough devastation, enough cruelty and we should try to solve the problems and not create further problems," Schallenberg said.

He also criticized Yemen’s Houthi rebels who have been attacking ships in the Red Sea, saying: "They think they can play with fire without getting burnt."

Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib called for a deal for a disputed stretch of the Israel-Lebanon border, similar to the deal reached through U.S. mediation in 2022 over the two countries' disputed maritime border. He said the problem can be solved when Israel withdraws from disputed areas, including Chebaa Farms, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967.

"Israel would return all the Lebanese land to us and then the problem of Hezbollah and Israel will be at least partly solved," Bouhabib said.

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