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Tension rises as Beirut cabinet challenges Hezbollah

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Western-backed Lebanese government on Tuesday accused Hezbollah of violating the country’s sovereignty by operating its own communications network and installing spy cameras at Beirut airport.

The challenge to Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, is likely to increase tensions in Lebanon, suffering its worst political crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war.

Hezbollah has been leading a campaign against the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora since November 2006. The standoff has left Lebanon without a president for five months.

A cabinet statement described Hezbollah’s communications network as “an attack on the sovereignty of the state” and said it would take legal action against anyone involved in it.

The cabinet, which has strong backing from the United States and Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, also removed the head of Beirut airport security in another challenge to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah, a political group with a guerrilla army, said the communications network was part of its military and security apparatus and played a key role in its war with Israel in 2006.

“The cabinet cannot, and no one can stop us from defending ourselves and defending the country,” Hezbollah’s deputy leader Sheikh Naim Kassem told the group’s al-Manar television.

Hezbollah was the only Lebanese faction allowed to keep its weapons after the civil war to fight Israeli forces occupying the south. Israel withdrew in 2000 and the fate of Hezbollah’s weapons are at the heart of the political crisis.

“He who aims his arrows at (Hezbollah’s) communications, aims his arrows at (its) weapons,” Kassem said.

Security sources says Hezbollah has an extensive fixed-line telecommunications network that covers south and east Lebanon as well as Beirut’s southern suburbs.

A U.N. Security Council resolution that ended the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel bans the group from rearming and rebuilding its military infrastructure in south Lebanon.


At a meeting which lasted into the early hours of Tuesday, the cabinet stated that Hezbollah had erected cameras to monitor a runway at Beirut airport. The cabinet decided to remove Brigadier General Wafiq Shkeir from his post as airport security chief and described the cameras as another violation of sovereignty.

Hezbollah’s Kassem said the issue was ridiculous. He said cameras were not needed to monitor the airport, which is located in southern suburbs controlled by his group. Hezbollah’s construction arm, Jihad Binaa, had erected cameras near the airport to monitor goods it stores there, he said.

Governing coalition leaders allege that Hezbollah is spying on the airport to monitor their movements. Eight members of the anti-Syrian coalition have been assassinated since 2005.

Hezbollah and its allies in the opposition have deemed Siniora’s cabinet illegitimate ever since all of its Shi’ite Muslim ministers resigned in November 2006.

Official posts in Lebanon are divided according to a sectarian system. Hezbollah is the country’s most powerful Shi’ite faction and enjoys wide support among Shi’ites.

The political conflict has centred around the opposition’s demand for veto power in cabinet -- a demand which the governing coalition has refused to meet.

The crisis has left Lebanon without a president. Parliament has been called on May 13 in a 19th attempt to elect a new head of state.

Editing by Keith Weir