Text size

Israel Air Force warplanes dropped flares over the southern Lebanon coast Monday, hours after Hezbollah officials confirmed that militants from the group had carried out tactical maneuvers near Lebanon's border with Israel.

A pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper reported Monday that thousands of guerrillas had staged the group's largest-ever military maneuvers near Israel's border in southern Lebanon, but Prime Minister Fuad Saniora later said the reported exercise was probably just a simulation.

Hezbollah initially declined to comment, but later Monday, a senior member confirmed the maneuvers, saying they were intended to counter Israeli activity.

"In response to what the enemy is doing, this maneuver by the Islamic resistance [Hezbollah] was part of its ... work and its commitment to always defend Lebanon, its sovereignty and its people," said Sheik Hassan Izzedine, a senior Hezbollah official in southern Lebanon. He spoke on local al-Jadeed television.

Al-Akhbar, a pro-Hezbollah newspaper, had reported Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah personally supervised the maneuvers, which it said were carried out in the last three days and were the biggest ever staged on Israel's border by the Shiite Muslim militant group.

Monday's report marked the first time Hezbollah, with its highly secretive military wing, revealed such exercises through a close newspaper. The maneuvers, if confirmed, could pose a major challenge to a UN-brokered cease-fire that ended last year's war with Israel.

However, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said authorities checked with military and police units as well as UN peacekeepers and they confirmed nothing on the ground really happened.

"It was, let's say, a simulation probably, in an operation room, on the desk, probably they did such a thing, he said, speaking to Associated Press Television News at government headquarters. "This has been confirmed by all the sources."

Hezbollah legislator, Hassan Fadlallah, said earlier Monday that it was only natural that the group be fully ready to confront any possible Israeli attack.

"Clearly, we will not let Israel carry out aggression against Lebanon and we sit still," he told Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. television, referring to the increased Israeli military flights over southern Lebanon in recent days.

The alleged maneuvers came a few days after Israel held major military exercises in the north of the country near the Lebanese border. The IDF action was interpreted by some Lebanese media as preparation by Israel for a possible new war with Hezbollah.

Al-Akhbar said the Hezbollah maneuvers were carried out south of the Litani River in southern Lebanon and aimed at deterring the enemy from carrying out any adventure in Lebanon. The zone has been controlled by a UN peacekeeping force and the Lebanese army since last year's war.

"A state of Israeli alertness is countered by extraordinary movement by the resistance (Hezbollah)," read a front-page headline Monday in As-Safir, another newspaper close to Hezbollah. It quoted witnesses in southern Lebanon as saying they observed unusual movement by Hezbollah for the first time since last year's war, but gave no further details.

There was no immediate comment from officials of the UN peacekeeping force, which has 13,500 soldiers who patrol a buffer zone near the border with Israel with the help of 15,000 Lebanese troops.

But As-Safir quoted Major General Claudio Graziano, the commander of the UNInterim Force in Lebanon as warning Lebanese leaders he met in Beirut last week that the tension in the south and a deepening political crisis in the country might prompt European countries to withdraw from UNIFIL within less than four months.

Italy, France, Spain and Germany form the bulk of the reinforced UN force that deployed in southern Lebanon after last year's war.

Al-Akhbar said Hezbollah's maneuvers were carried out all along the border with Israel in extreme secrecy without any show of arms.

The newspaper quoted Nasrallah as telling the participants that the maneuvers were intended for foe and friend to make them understand that the resistance (Hezbollah) is fully ready to confront any kinds of Israeli threats.