Hezbollah denies sending arms to regional conflicts

Rouba El Husseini
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An image grab taken from Hezbollah TV on November 20, 2017 shows Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Lebanese Shiite movement, giving a televised address from an undisclosed location in Lebanon

The head of Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah on Monday flatly denied Arab accusations his group had sent weapons to conflict-ridden regional countries, while celebrating his fighters' military wins abroad.

The Arab League denounced Hezbollah during an extraordinary meeting in Cairo on Sunday, calling the group "terrorist" and demanding it stop intervening in regional conflicts and "spreading extremism".

Saudi Arabia called the ministerial-level meeting to discuss "violations" by its rival Tehran, which backs armed movements across the region, including Hezbollah.

The Sunni kingdom was furious after intercepting what it said was a ballistic missile fired at Riyadh by Shiite Yemeni rebels and supplied by Iran, which has denied the allegation.

In a televised address on Monday, Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah said his group was not involved in the attack.

"No one from Lebanon's Hezbollah has anything to do with the launch of this missile," Nasrallah said.

He also rejected accusations that Hezbollah was sending weapons to regional conflict zones.

"I want to formally deny it: we did not send weapons to Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, or Iraq," Nasrallah said.

The Arab League meeting's concluding statement said it would hold Hezbollah "responsible for supporting terrorism and terrorist organisations in Arab countries with modern weapons and ballistic missiles".

Nasrallah mocked the accusations as "foolish," but stopped short of his typical vitriol against Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

"We haven't sent weapons to any Arab country -- no ballistic missiles, advanced weapons, not even a pistol," he said, later clarifying that his fighters had sent arms to the Palestinian territories and had taken arms with them to Syria.

- 'Mission accomplished' -

Even as he rejected accusations of regional meddling, Nasrallah lauded Hezbollah's involvement in battlefield victories against the Islamic State group in both Syria and Iraq.

In recent days, IS has lost control of the last towns it held in both countries, capping the group's reversion to an underground guerrilla organisation with no urban base.

Nasrallah said Monday he was ready to pull Hezbollah's fighters back from Iraq after IS lost the town of Rawa near the border with Syria.

"We consider that the mission has been accomplished, but we are waiting for the final, Iraqi announcement of victory," he said.

He said the group had deployed "large numbers of our commanders and cadres" to Iraq.

"If we find that it's over, that there is no need for the presence of these brothers, they will return to be deployed in any other arena that needs them," Nasrallah said.

Hezbollah has also dispatched thousands of fighters to neighbouring Syria, where they are bolstering President Bashar al-Assad's troops.

Regime forces and allied militia on Sunday ousted IS from Albu Kamal, the last town the jihadists had controlled in Syria.

"Today, with the liberation of the last pocket... of Albu Kamal, history will mark the end of Daesh as a state," Nasrallah said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

He admitted that a "large number" of Hezbollah fighters had lost their lives in the assault on Albu Kamal.

- 'Do not intervene' -

For more than a decade, Lebanon's political class has been largely split between the Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies, and a Saudi-supported coalition led by prime minister Saad Hariri.

In a televised broadcast from Riyadh earlier this month, Hariri sent shockwaves across the region by announcing he was stepping down from the premiership.

He has yet to return to Lebanon, spending two weeks in Saudi Arabia before flying to Paris.

Hariri said he would be in Beirut by Wednesday to take part in Lebanon's Independence Day celebrations.

His extended stay in Riyadh prompted accusations -- even from Lebanese President Michel Aoun -- that Hariri was being held "hostage" by Saudi authorities.

On Monday, Nasrallah said he did not consider Hariri's resignation to be final, and said all Lebanese factions were awaiting the premier's arrival.

"The priority is the return of PM Saad Hariri to Lebanon," he said, adding that he was "open" to dialogue.

Nasrallah then turned the Arab League's accusation on its head, warning others not to meddle in Lebanon.

"Do not intervene in Lebanon's affairs, like the blatant, brazen intervention we have seen over the past two weeks."