Lebanon PM criticises Hezbollah media border tour

AFP , Friday 21 Apr 2017

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri arrives with Army Commander General Joseph Aoun (L) at the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) headquarters in Naqoura, near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon April 21, 2017 (Photo: Reuters)

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri criticised the powerful Hezbollah movement on Friday for organising a media tour of the country's demarcation line with Israel amid speculation about a new war.

Speaking from the town of Naqura in Lebanon's far south, Hariri said "what happened yesterday is something that we, as a government, are not concerned with and do not accept".

His comments and his trip to the south came a day after Hezbollah took a group of over 100 local and international journalists on a rare tour of the border area.

Members of the group's armed wing stood guard on part of the tour, displaying weapons despite an official prohibition on any armed paramilitary presence so close to the demarcation line.

Hariri, who was accompanied by the defence minister and army chief, said his trip was intended "to tell the Lebanese armed forces that they and only they are the legitimate force in charge of defending our borders".

There has been rising speculation about a new conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, who fought a 34-day war in 2006.

That conflict killed 1,200 people in Lebanon, mainly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

Israel withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon in 2000, ending a 22-year occupation, but the two countries remain technically at war and there have been occasional skirmishes on the border.

Hariri met with the head of the UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL during his visit and urged UN chief Antonio Guterres to "support efforts to secure, as soon as possible, a state of permanent ceasefire".

Hezbollah is a major force in Lebanon, with an arsenal that exceeds even that of the country's armed forces.

It holds parliamentary seats, but is classed by the United States as a "terrorist group" and has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to bolster President Bashar al-Assad against an uprising.

Hariri's political bloc is now in government with Hezbollah, despite years of rivalry and acrimony.

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