UN force in Lebanon says no evidence of weapon smuggling

AP News
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Posted: Aug 23, 2017 1:04 PM
UN force in Lebanon says no evidence of weapon smuggling

BEIRUT (AP) — The head of U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon is pushing back after U.S. and Israeli criticism of the mission, saying Wednesday that his force has no evidence that weapons are being illegally transferred to the Hezbollah-dominated south.

The U.N. Security Council is expected to renew the mandate of the force, known as UNIFIL, which is due to expire Aug. 31. U.S. and Israel officials have called for improvements in its efforts to prevent Hezbollah from expanding its arsenal following the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese militant group.

Maj. Gen. Michael Beary defended the 10,500-strong force, saying it has successfully maintained the peace for more than a decade, and prevented any major "misunderstandings" from erupting between Israel and Hezbollah.

"We should not be looking to upset that," the Irish commander told The Associated Press on Wednesday aboard the Brazilian flagship for the UNIFIL maritime force.

He said his force's mandate is "viable" and has enabled his mission to deploy south of the Litani river and along most of the 110-kilometer (68-mile) frontier between Israel and Lebanon. It also allows for patrols and helicopter reconnaissance missions.

On Wednesday, UNIFIL's Maritime Task Force carried out a joint training exercise with the Lebanese army, simulating an interception at sea of a ship carrying contraband.

Lebanese soldiers swooped aboard the UNIAO from a helicopter, and others boarded from two inflatable boats to seize the illegal shipment and arrest the crew members as UNIFIL and Lebanese officials watched.

"I have no evidence, nor have I been provided with any evidence of weapons transfers into my area of operations," which is confined to southern Lebanon, Beary said.

"We are extremely active in the area and if there was a large cache of weapons, we would know about it" he added.

UNIFIL is not deployed along the border with Syria. Iran is suspected of shipping weapons to Hezbollah through Syria, where the militant group is fighting alongside President Bashar Assad's forces. Israel has targeted suspected convoys there with airstrikes.

Earlier this month, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley urged UNIFIL to step up efforts to prevent the spread of illegal arms in the south, saying Washington is seeking "significant improvements" to the force when the Security Council meets to extend its mandate.

Israel's Ambassador to the U.N. Danny Danon was more specific. He told the AP that U.N. forces should have an increased presence in their area of operations, with more patrols and without any restrictions on its movements.

He also said the mission should be gathering "real-time updates" about violations, saying it is often last to report them.

"If Hezbollah is able to turn civilian border towns into terrorist outposts and increase their hostile activities along our border - all while UNIFIL is stationed nearby - then it should be obvious to the Security Council that significant changes are needed in the mandate," Danon said.

Rear Admiral Sergio Fernando de Amaral Chaves Jr., the commander of the maritime force, the U.N.'s first and only naval unit, said his forces have helped deter smugglers and improve the conditions for Lebanon's maritime economy since it deployed in 2006. He said no weapons smuggling through sea has been reported since 2012, when in cooperation with the Lebanese Armed Forces, two attempts to bring arms into Lebanon through ports were foiled.

"We are here patrolling. Helping to establish the security environment ...this is our big contribution," Chaves said.

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Associated Press Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.