BEIRUT -- Hezbollah flew a spy drone over northern Israel yesterday in retaliation for Israeli overflights in Lebanon, the Lebanese militant group said.
It was the second time in recent months that the Shi'ite Muslim guerrilla group has sent a drone over Israel.
The Israeli military confirmed that Hezbollah sent a spy plane, saying it crossed into Israel in the Western Galilee. Two Israeli military aircraft flew over southern Lebanon shortly after the drone's flight, Lebanese officials said.
By sending a drone at this particular time, Hezbollah could be seeking to boost its standing at home in Lebanon as its Syrian allies leave the country and it tries to chart a bigger political role for itself.
Flying an unmanned spy craft -- a capability the Lebanese Army does not have -- strengthens Hezbollah's image at home as a defender of Lebanon amid calls by some for the group to disarm.
Hezbollah said its ''Mirsad I" drone flew over Israeli communities all the way to the area of the coastal city of Acre in northern Israel ''in response to the enemy's continuous and repeated violations of Lebanese airspace."
It said the aircraft returned safely to base after the 5:15 p.m. flight.
Earlier yesterday, an Israeli reconnaissance plane flew over southern Lebanon and the eastern Bekaa Valley, where Syrian forces are carrying out a withdrawal from Lebanon, the Lebanese Army command said.
Under international pressure, Syria has promised to pull all its troops out of Lebanon by April 30, ending a decades-long presence and undermining its political hold on its smaller neighbor.
A Hezbollah surveillance capability of Israeli territories would probably stoke tensions along the long problematic border. Israel regularly clashed with Hezbollah forces during the Jewish state's 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended with its withdrawal four years ago.
The first time the Iranian-backed Hezbollah sent a drone over the north was Nov. 7, also in response to Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace. The Israeli Army said it believed the craft was Iranian-made.
Since the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, clashes have been confined to the disputed Chebaa Farms area on the foothills of Mount Hermon in the east where the borders of Lebanon, Syria, and Israel meet.
Israeli planes have frequently violated Lebanese airspace on reconnaissance missions, drawing antiaircraft fire from the Lebanese army and Hezbollah guerrillas. Fragments of exploding shells have often fallen on Israeli border communities, causing panic and drawing Israeli warnings.