Troops block smuggling routes with Syria

SULTAN YACOUB (AP) — Commandos manned positions near Palestinian bases in this rugged region Thursday and soldiers blocked smuggling routes along the Syrian border as Lebanon beefed up efforts to control its territory amid heightened tensions with Syria.
The tense standoff with the pro-Syrian Palestinian groups, which started Wednesday, demonstrated Lebanon’s desire to take the lead in disarming groups, which the United States has deemed terrorist.
Lebanon’s Cabinet also rejected UN calls made Wednesday to do more to disarm groups such as the powerful Syrian and Iranian-backed Hizbollah, saying dialogue was needed, not international pressure.

Lebanon’s tougher line with Palestinian factions are increasing regional anxieties, particularly as Syria is under pressure to cooperate further with a UN probe into February’s assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri that has been linked to Damascus.

Hundreds of Lebanese troops backed by tanks deployed around pro-Syrian Palestinian camps in Sultan Yacoub, a village some five kilometres from the Syrian border, and the nearby town of Hilweh.

Lebanon blames the Fateh Uprising group in Hilweh for shooting dead a Lebanese civilian contractor this week, claims which the group denies.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), another heavily armed group in Sultan Yacoub, is linked to weapons smuggling from Syria.

Both groups, which have long been based in Lebanon and supported by Syria, warned Lebanon about escalating tensions.

Ahmed Jibril, the Damascus-based PFLP-GC leader, said his group won’t give up its weapons, but dismissed UN claims that arms and personnel are coming from Syria. “Our weapons are not just to protect the Palestinian camps in Lebanon but they are for the struggle to preserve our rights to self-destination and return,” said Jibril, who has been named in a UN report implicating senior Syrian and Lebanese security officials in Hariri’s murder.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora has promised to end the Lebanese military operations, claimed Jibril, who warned that such tensions will undermine dialogue. Anti-Syrian Lebanese Cabinet Minister Ahmed Fatfat said talks between Siniora and Palestinian officials will prevent a showdown.

North of Sultan Yacoub, Lebanese troops backed by armoured vehicles climbed slopes of the Anti-Lebanon Mountain range and raided depots used by smugglers to bring in cheaper goods — and some claim — weapons from Syria. Army bulldozers trashed fuel tanks where smuggled goods were stored and erected dirt mounds on major smuggling routes along a 16-kilometre stretch north of Hermel in northeastern Lebanon.

Syrian forces on the other side did not interfere, but for the last few weeks have been chasing smugglers, area villagers said.

Sultan Yacoub and Hilweh are 20 kilometres from the Syrian capital of Damascus. Large parts of the Lebanese-Syrian border have not been demarcated since both countries gained independence from France in 1943.

The UN envoy to Lebanon and Syria, Terje Roed-Larsen, said in his Security Council report that Lebanon has made no significant progress in disbanding militias, partly because more weapons are coming into their possession from Syria.

But disarming Hizbollah, a popular Shiite Muslim group, is a sensitive issue for Lebanese authorities, who regard it as a legitimate resistance movement opposing Israeli occupation of Arab territories. Iran and Syria also back Hizbollah, but Washington regards it as a “terrorist organisation.”

Lebanon’s Cabinet on Thursday said it respects UN resolutions but stressed the divergent views with the world body over Hizbollah.

“We repeat that the [Security Council] article pertaining to the resistance is dealt with within the framework of internal national dialogue,” Information Minister Ghazi Aridi quoted President Emile Lahoud as saying.

Hizbollah, which refuses to disarm but says it is open for dialogue with various Lebanese factions, is expected to comment on Roed-Larsen’s report during a massive rally planned for Friday.

Hizbollah, which has a political wing and is represented in Parliament and Cabinet, has almost complete control in southern Lebanon where it clashes frequently with Israeli troops in the disputed Shebaa Farms on Lebanon’s border with Syria’s Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

It spearheaded a war against Israeli occupation forces until they withdrew in May 2000 and says its weapons are still needed because Israel is still occupying Shebaa Farms.

The UN resolution passed in September 2004 demanded Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias disarm and Lebanese troops deploy in southern Lebanon. It also calls for disarmament, including ending Hizbollah’s armed presence.

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