Disarm Hezbollah, U.N. chief tells Lebanon
BEIRUT (Reuters) - United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon demanded Friday the disarmament of the anti-Israel Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which had said his visit to Lebanon was not welcome.
"I am deeply concerned about the military capacity of Hezbollah and ... the lack of progress in disarmament," he told a news conference after meeting Lebanese leaders.
"That is why we discussed this matter very seriously and I strongly encouraged President (Michel) Suleiman to initiate a convening of this national dialogue to address these issues...
"All these arms outside of the authorized state authority, it's not acceptable," Ban declared.
The secretary-general's trip made waves even before he arrived, with one Hezbollah leader saying he was not welcome, a stance criticized by Lebanese politicians opposed to the armed Shi'ite Islamist movement and its Syrian and Iranian patrons.
Hezbollah accepted an expansion of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in the south after its devastating 2006 war with Israel, but rejects a U.N. Security Council resolution that demands that it lay down its military arsenal, as all other Lebanese armed groups did after the 1975-90 civil war.
UNIFIL troops came under three attacks last year in which Italian and French soldiers were wounded. A rocket was launched into Israel in November and another rocket launching was attempted last month. No group claimed responsibility.
"There are no explicit fears that there is a new climate of hostility to the United Nations," a diplomatic source said. "But there is concern, which the secretary-general will emphasize, over the attacks (on UNIFIL) in May, July and December."
UNIFIL, now about 12,000 strong, is the third biggest U.N. peacekeeping operation and one of the oldest, beginning after an Israeli invasion against Palestinian guerrillas in 1978.
The Lebanese army has taken on a bigger role in the south since 2006, but given the tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, there is no sign of an exit strategy for the U.N. force there.
Hezbollah, the most powerful faction in Lebanon, is also angry at the indictment by the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) of four of its members over the assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri on Beirut's seafront in 2005.
It denies any part in the bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others and vows not to hand over the indicted men. Hezbollah also wants Lebanon's unity government, of which it is a part, to cut off funding for the tribunal and end cooperation with it.
Lebanon paid $32 million, its 49 percent share of the costs, in November, using a maneuver by which Lebanese banks gave the money to a special fund whose use did not need cabinet approval.
Ban said the United Nations "continues to expect Lebanon to support and cooperate fully with the Special Tribunal."
The U.N. chief said he would decide soon, in consultation with the Security Council and the Lebanese government, whether to extend the STL's mandate, which expires in March.
Ban, due to speak Sunday at a conference on democratic transitions, said he had repeatedly urged Syria to halt the killings that have turned a 10-month revolt against President Bashar al-Assad into one of the bloodiest of Arab uprisings.
"The Syrian authorities must respond to the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Syrian people," he told the Beirut daily an-Nahar, adding that the Security Council, so far divided over Syria, should speak with one voice on the issue.
The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed in the unrest, which Syria blames on armed "terrorists" it says have killed 2,000 members of the security forces.
Russia and China have blocked any firm Security Council action against Syria. The Arab League has sent monitors to find out if Damascus is complying with an Arab peace plan. If their report next week is negative, it may refer Syria to the council.
(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans)