BEIRUT, Lebanon, (AP) – Thousands of Hezbollah guerrillas staged secret military maneuvers without weapons or uniforms near Israel’s border in southern Lebanon, a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper reported Monday.
If accurate, the development could pose a major challenge to a U.N.-brokered cease-fire that ended last year’s war with the Jewish state.
Al-Akhbar, a pro-Hezbollah newspaper, said Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah personally supervised the maneuvers, which it reported were carried out in the last three days and were the biggest ever staged on Israel’s border by the Shiite Muslim militant group.
Monday’s report marked the first time Hezbollah, with its highly secretive military wing, revealed such exercises through a newspaper. Hezbollah officials declined to comment.
The alleged maneuvers, which have yet to be confirmed, came a few days after Israel held major military exercises in the north of the country near the Lebanese border. The Israeli action was interpreted by some Lebanese media as preparation by the Jewish state for a possible new war with Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s actions could be an attempt to counter the Israeli exercises.
Al-Akhbar said the Hezbollah maneuvers were carried out south of the Litani River in southern Lebanon and aimed at “deterring the enemy from carrying out any adventure in Lebanon.” The zone has been controlled by a U.N. peacekeeping force and the Lebanese army since last year’s war.
“A state of Israeli alertness is countered by extraordinary movement by the resistance (Hezbollah),” read a front-page headline Monday in As-Safir, another newspaper close to Hezbollah. It quoted witnesses in southern Lebanon as saying they observed “unusual movement” by Hezbollah for the first time since last year’s war, but gave no further details.
There was no immediate comment from officials of the U.N. peacekeeping force, which has 13,500 soldiers who patrol a buffer zone near the border with Israel with the help of 15,000 Lebanese troops.
But a Lebanese security official, speaking on customary condition of anonymity in line with government regulations, said Lebanese forces in south Lebanon “did not register any armed presence south of the Litani.”
The official said troops are under orders to prevent any armed presence in accordance with a U.N. Security Council resolution that ended last year’s fighting, but pointed out “that civilians have the right to freely move in their villages” and if they do not carry weapons, they are not breaking the law.
Al-Akhbar said Hezbollah’s maneuvers were carried out all along the border with Israel “in extreme secrecy without any show of arms.”
The newspaper quoted Nasrallah as telling the participants that the maneuvers were intended “for foe and friend to make them understand that the resistance (Hezbollah) is fully ready to confront any kinds of Israeli threats.”
Nasrallah said last week his guerrilla group has grown stronger since last summer’s war as Israel has weakened. He said his guerrillas did not want war but “will not allow anyone to attack our villages, people and country.”
The Lebanese army command has in the last few days issued statements noting increased Israeli overflights in southern Lebanon in violation of the cease-fire resolution.
Since the fighting with Israel ended, Nasrallah has boasted that his guerrillas have replenished their rocket arsenal and were ready to fight Israel if attacked. The Hezbollah leader has said his group possesses more than 33,000 rockets.
Last week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a new report that said Israel claims that Hezbollah has rearmed with new long-range rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv. Ban’s report said Israel claims Hezbollah has tripled its shore-to-sea C-802 missiles and has established an air defense unit armed with ground-to-air missiles.