Hezbollah has created a “state within a state” in Lebanon and must be disarmed, an Italian daily on Thursday reported Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora as saying, but his office later said the premier had been misquoted.
Saniora reportedly told Milan-based newspaper Corriere della Sera that the Shiite militia has been doing the bidding of Syria and Iran, and that it could only be disarmed with the help of the international community and once a cease-fire had been achieved in the current Middle East fighting.
“Hezbollah has become a state within a state. We know it well,” Saniora was quoted as saying, for the first time leveling such an accusation against guerrillas that effectively control southern Lebanon.
“It’s not a mystery that Hezbollah answers to the political agendas of Tehran and Damascus,” Saniora was quoted as saying. “The entire world must help us disarm Hezbollah. But first we need to reach a cease-fire.”
Later Thursday, Saniora’s office said the prime minister had been misquoted, adding that his words had been translated from English into Italian and that Corriere’s journalist had chosen sentences that were not connected and did not report the literal meaning of what he had said.
According to the statement, the premier had said that international help was needed to persuade Israel to withdraw from the Chebaa Farms, a disputed territory that Lebanon claims and Hezbollah uses as a pretext for attacking Israeli forces.
“What the prime minister said was that the international community has not given the Lebanese government the chance to deal with the problem of Hezbollah weapons, since the continued presence of Israeli occupation of Lebanese lands in the Chebaa Farms region is what contributes to the presence of Hezbollah weapons,” the statement said. “The international community must help us in (getting) an Israeli withdrawal from Chebaa Farms so we can solve the problem of Hezbollah’s arms.”
No one was immediately available at the newspaper to respond.
In the interview, Saniora reportedly said that Lebanon was still too weak to attack Hezbollah.
“The important thing now is to restore full Lebanese sovereignty in the south, dismantling any armed militia parallel to the national army,” he was quoted as saying. “The Syrians are inside our home, and we are still too weak to defend ourselves. The terrible memories of the civil war are still too alive, and no one is ready to take up arms.”
The prime minister has said in the past that disarmament is impossible while some Lebanese territory is still under Israeli occupation, but he has never accused Hezbollah of following Iran’s and Syria’s agenda or of acting like a state within a state.
In the interview, Saniora reportedly reiterated his harsh criticism of Israel’s air and sea attacks against Lebanon, saying that “Israel’s criminal bombardments must be stopped immediately,” and adding that these were counterproductive for all sides.
“They are bombing civilians and creating sympathies for Hezbollah where otherwise there wouldn’t be any,” Corriere quoted him as saying.
Israel says it is acting in self-defense in response to Hezbollah’s July 12 cross-border attack on a military patrol and capture of two soldiers, as well as the subsequent launch of hundreds of missiles on northern Israeli cities and communities. It has vowed to press on with the offensive until the soldiers are freed and until it destroys Hezbollah’s vast arsenal of missiles and drives the group far from Israel’s northern border.