BEIRUT: The leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces party denied on Thursday his group has fighters, dismissing accusations by Hezbollah that it has a militia and seeks civil war as the fallout of deadly violence in Beirut continues to roil Lebanon.
Already suffering a devastating economic meltdown, Lebanon has been overshadowed by renewed tensions since seven Shiites were shot dead in Beirut last week during the worst street violence in the capital in more than a decade.
The heavily armed, Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah has accused the Lebanese Forces party of perpetrating the killing.
The Lebanese Forces, a group which had a powerful militia in the 1975-90 civil war, has denied any involvement.
In an interview with Lebanese broadcaster MTV on Thursday, LF leader Samir Geagea said the confrontation with Hezbollah was purely political and must remain so.
“We do not have fighters,” Geagea said.
Nobody should think about confronting Hezbollah militarily, Geagea said, saying this would be a big mistake.
Sources familiar with the matter told Reuters a military court would ask Geagea to give a statement about the October 14 violence. The sources did not say when.
Asked about the report, Geagea said he had not been informed of any request for a statement, but if the court wants to take one from him it should first listen to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
Thursday’s shooting started as supporters of Hezbollah and its Shiite ally Amal were gathering for a demonstration against the lead investigator in the Beirut port blast probe.
HOLDING GOVERNMENT ‘HOSTAGE’
The army is still investigating the violence. Hezbollah has accused the LF of an ambush. There was no immediate response from Hezbollah to Geagea’s comments.
Geagea has said the trouble began when supporters of the Shi’ite parties entered the Christian neighbourhood of Ain Al Remmaneh where they vandalised cars and four residents were wounded before a shot was fired. On Thursday, Geagea said Ain Al Remmaneh had been subjected to “an invasion”.
He has said he did not know who had opened fire. The army said on Saturday a soldier suspected of opening fire towards the protesters was under investigation.
The standoff is fuelling concerns over Lebanon’s stability as the country grapples with a devastating two-year-long economic meltdown.
What is the Lebanese Forces?
ESTABLISHED IN CIVIL WAR - The LF was established in 1976 as Lebanon descended into civil war. Bashir Gemayel, a Maronite Christian, created the LF by unifying an array of Christian militias including the armed wing of his family’s Kataeb, or Phalange, party.
It fought numerous adversaries, notably the Palestine Liberation Organisation - which controlled swathes of Lebanon at the time - and was backed by Israel. The LF’s Lebanese foes included Walid Jumblatt’s Druze militia.
Gemayel was assassinated in 1982, a month after he was elected president after Israel invaded all the way to Beirut.
The killing triggered the massacre by Christian militiamen of Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps.
In 1983, the LF was defeated by Druze fighters in the Chouf mountains, leading some 250,000 Christians to flee the area, the biggest single sectarian displacement of the war.
Samir Geagea, who rose through the ranks under Gemayel, took control of the LF in 1986. Under his command, the LF remained the most powerful Christian militia and ran a Christian enclave.
The final years of the civil war were marked by a war between the LF and then-army commander Michel Aoun, who was head of one of the two rival Lebanese governments at the time, for control of the Christian area. This conflict, known as the “war of elimination”, heaped destruction on Christian areas.
The LF agreed to the peace agreement that ended civil war and ceded control of its territory and weapons to the army in 1991. But tensions quickly surfaced between the LF and the new, Damascus-dominated order in Beirut as it became clear the Syrian army was not going to withdraw as set out in the agreement.
In 1994, Geagea was arrested and put on trial for bombing a church and political killings in the war. He denied the accusations, saying he was the target of a politically motivated prosecution. Asked about cases brought against him from that time, Geagea has said they were fabricated by the Syrian-Lebanese security apparatus.
He was acquitted of the church bombing but convicted of political killings. He spent 11 years in solitary confinement, the only militia leader to go to jail, while others benefited from an amnesty and took cabinet posts.
The Syria-backed Lebanese authorities banned the LF in 1994, jailing many LF activists and seizing its assets.
A new phase began in 2005 when the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon following Rafik Hariri’s assassination. Geagea was released from prison.
The LF joined an anti-Syrian alliance including civil war foes in confronting pro-Damascus factions, chief among them the Iran-backed Hezbollah.
Like Hezbollah’s other opponents, the LF believes the group’s arsenal undermines the state and sees it as a major factor contributing to Lebanon’s other problems.
The LF has vociferously stuck by this position while some of Hezbollah’s other critics have set the issue to one side, saying the question of Hezbollah’s weapons can only be addressed by foreign powers. With this hawkish stance, the LF is widely seen as one of Saudi Arabia’s last Lebanese allies.
The second largest Christian party in parliament, the LF has stayed out of the cabinet since a popular uprising against the sectarian elite in 2019. It says Lebanon’s problems can only be fixed by a cabinet that is independent of political factions.
The LF, which says it remains a political party with no military wing, has a decades-long rivalry with another Christian faction supporting now-President Michel Aoun in the Free Patriotic Movement he founded.
The day of the incident, the army initially said gunfire had targeted protesters as they passed through the Teyouneh traffic circle dividing Christian and Shiite neighbourhoods. It later said there had been an “altercation and exchange of fire” as protesters were on their way to the demonstration.
The violence including the use of rocket-propelled grenades lasted several hours.
Geagea said Nasrallah aimed to halt the probe into the port blast. Geagea said that while he initially thought Hezbollah had nothing to do with the explosion, “with its recent actions it is telling us that perhaps it might be concerned with the port explosion”.
Hezbollah has been leading demands for the lead investigator in the probe, Judge Tarek Bitar, to be removed, accusing him of bias. Bitar has not sought to question any Hezbollah members over the blast.
Bitar has sought to question several Hezbollah allies on suspicion of negligence that led to the blast, which killed more than 200 people and devastated swathes of Beirut.
In its efforts to stop the probe, Hezbollah has taken the current government “hostage”, Geagea said, referring to how standoff over Bitar has paralysed the cabinet.
The leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces party denied on Thursday his group has any fighters, rebutting claims by Shiite Hezbollah that he has assembled a militia as the fallout of deadly violence in Beirut last week continues to roil Lebanon.