Lebanon’s foreign minister has escorted dozens of ambassadors on a tour of facilities near the Beirut international airport in a bid to disprove Israeli allegations that the Iran-backed Hizballah movement is secretly assembling missiles there.
Gebran Bassil told the group of over 70 diplomats and a handful of journalists on the October 1 tour that his government would not allow rocket facilities near the airport and that Hizballah is “wiser” than to place them there. He said Israel’s claims are “inaccurate” and are not backed by “compelling evidence.”
“Lebanon demands that Israel ceases its madness,” he said.
In a speech before the UN General Assembly last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the powerful Shi’ite militia of assembling precision-guided missiles near the airport and hiding them among civilians. He held up an aerial image of the area with three alleged missile sites labeled.
Netanyahu accused Hizballah and its sponsor Iran of using Beirut residents as human shields.
Bassil said his tour was not “a fact-finding mission,” but part of a “counter-diplomatic campaign” to rebut the allegations, which he said could serve as a pretext for an Israeli attack.
Israel and Hizballah, which was founded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in 1982, have clashed repeatedly, most recently in a month-long war in 2006 during which Israel bombed the runways of Beirut’s airport.
Hizballah, whose forces control south Lebanon bordering Israel and Beirut’s southern suburbs where the airport is located, has not officially reacted to Netanyahu’s accusations.
Last month, its chief, Hassan Nasrallah, announced that Hizballah had acquired “precision missiles.”
Bassil acknowledged Hizballah’s claims, but said “this doesn’t mean that those missiles are present in the vicinity of Beirut airport.”
The Israeli military believes Hizballah has between 100,000 and 120,000 short-range missiles and rockets, as well as several hundred longer-range missiles.
On his tour of the alleged sites, Bassil led the group of ambassadors and journalists around a sports stadium and pool complex, one of the sites that Netanyahu had identified as a missile facility.
They toured the underground locker rooms and gym beneath the soccer stadium where Netanyahu had specified that the missiles were kept. The tour did not go to one of the sites identified by Netanyahu — a dock by the waterfront.
Bassil lashed out at Israel, which he claimed had “violated our land, air, and marine space 1,417 times in the last eight months.”
Israel was attempting “to justify another violation of UN resolutions and to justify another aggression on a sovereign country,” he said.
But Netanyahu later repeated his claims, accusing Hizballah of “blatantly lying to the international community with a false, propaganda tour by the means of Lebanon’s foreign minister.”
“The ambassadors should ask themselves why [Lebanon] waited three days till the tour took place. Hizballah always takes care to clean the area at exposed sites,” said Netanyahu.
“It’s sad the Lebanese government is sacrificing the safety of its residents in covering for Hizballah, which has taken Lebanon hostage in its aggression against Israel.”
Not included in Bassil’s tour was the ambassador of the United States, Israel’s top ally. Bassil said U.S. envoy Elizabeth Richard was traveling.
Russian Ambassador Aleksandr Zasypkin said he was impressed with the tour, however.
“What we saw today are facts,” he told the Associated Press. “There is a club and stadium. I can’t imagine a secret thing happening in these places. We saw that with our own eyes.”
Contributed by RFE/RL