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Lebanon seeks to dispel Israeli allegations of rocket sites

October 1, 2018
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Lebanese soldiers guard as Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, center, tours a site next to a soccer club, with diplomats and journalists, one of several locations they visited near Beirut's international airport, in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. The ministry-organized tour, including a Golf course and the soccer club, was an effort to dispel Israeli allegations of the presence of missile sites there. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s foreign minister led dozens of ambassadors to locations near Beirut’s international airport on Monday, including a golf course and a soccer stadium, seeking to dispel Israeli allegations of secret Hezbollah rocket facilities.

In a speech before the U.N. General Assembly last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Lebanese militant group of setting up rocket factories near the airport and hiding them among civilians, holding up an aerial image of the area with the alleged missile sites labeled.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said his government would not allow rocket facilities near the airport and that Hezbollah is “wiser” than to place them there. He said Netanyahu’s claims were based on “inaccurate” estimates without any “compelling evidence.”

“Lebanon demands that Israel ceases its madness,” he said.

Bassil said Monday’s tour, which included the ambassadors and several reporters, 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 Hezbollah fought a devastating monthlong war in 2006 in which Israel bombed the runways of Beirut’s airport.

Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah recently boasted that his group now possesses “highly accurate” missiles despite Israeli attempts to prevent it from acquiring such weapons. The comments prompted an angry response from Netanyahu, who said Hezbollah will “receive a lethal blow it can’t imagine” if it confronts Israel.

Bassil acknowledged Hezbollah’s claims, but said “this doesn’t mean that those missiles are present in the vicinity of Beirut airport.”

The first stop on the tour was a golf course near the Rafik Hariri International Airport. Then the group went to the nearby Ahed soccer club, where they toured the underground locker rooms and gym beneath the stadium and spoke to club officials. Netanyahu had said there was a missile site beneath the stadium.

“We come here for soccer and for fun. We also have our kids here. That is all we have here,” said Mohammed Zriak, a player on the team, whose fan base largely consists of Hezbollah supporters.

The last stop was at a warehouse in Ouzai, a Hezbollah-dominated neighborhood near the airport, which appeared to have been abandoned and was littered with plastic bags and napkins. It was not clear if the warehouse was one of the sites mentioned by Netanyahu. The tour did not go to a third site indicated by Netanyahu as a dock by the waterfront.

In a statement, Netanyahu accused Hezbollah of “brazenly lying to the international community” and derided what he called Monday’s “fraudulent propaganda tour.” He accused the Lebanese foreign minister of taking the group to a soccer field but skipping a nearby missile factory.

“The ambassadors should ask themselves why they waited three days before making the tour. Hezbollah always takes care to clean the area at exposed sites,” he said.

At least one participant appeared to have been convinced by the tour.

Ambassador Alexander Zasypkin of Russia, which along with Hezbollah is a close ally of the Syrian government, described the tour as “very good.”

“On the diplomatic and political spheres, there are many statements,” he told The Associated Press. “What we saw today are facts. There is a club and stadium. I can’t imagine a secret thing happening in these places. We saw that with our own eyes.”

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Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed reporting.

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