Lebanon gives tour of Beirut airport to refute arms claims, amid fears of war with Israel

FILE - Fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah carry out a training exercise in Aaramta village in the Jezzine District, southern Lebanon, Sunday, May 21, 2023. Thousands of fighters from Iran-backed groups in the Middle East are offering to come to Lebanon to join the militant Hezbollah group in its fight with Israel. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

Lebanese government officials took more than 100 foreign diplomats and journalists on a tour Monday of the country's only international airport in a bid to refute a British newspaper report alleging that the facility was being used to store Hezbollah weapons.

The unusual tour followed Sunday's article in the Telegraph that quoted anonymous airport workers claiming the existence of a Hezbollah weapons cache in the airport, including artillery, ballistic and antitank missiles and explosives.

According to the un-bylined Telegraph story, one Beirut airport staffer reported seeing "unusually big boxes" arriving on a flight from Iran in November and that a high-ranking Hezbollah member oversaw customs shipments.

Coming amid escalating tensions between the paramilitary group and Israel, the report set off a frenzy of denials from Lebanese officials and raised fears it would be used by Israel to justify a strike on the airport.

It comes at a delicate time for the country: Since October, when Hezbollah launched a "support front" aimed at reducing pressure on Hamas, the Iran-backed group and Israel have traded daily strikes across the Lebanese-Israeli border.

Read more: With temperatures and tensions soaring, forests are burning in Israel and Lebanon

So far, at least 481people have been killed in Lebanon, mostly Hezbollah operatives but also 94 civilians, according to tallies by monitoring groups and news outlets. In Israel, 17 soldiers have been killed, Israeli authorities say.

Though hostilities between the two sides have been mostly around the border, fighting escalated in recent weeks, with many fearing a wider assault is only one miscalculation away.

The caretaker Lebanese Transportation Minister Ali Hamieh, a Hezbollah ally, dismissed the Telegraph's report as "ridiculous," saying that the airport's cargo operations adhered to international standards. He said that consultations had already begun with other parts of the Lebanese government to launch legal proceedings against the Telegraph.

Attending the tour were representatives of diplomatic missions from the European Union, Germany, Spain, Egypt, China, India and Pakistan, among others.

As part of the tour, diplomats and journalists visited two cargo areas in the airport that Hamieh said accounted for all traffic there — including the Iranian shipments mentioned in the Telegraph's report.

"With this article, we've gone from [Israeli] airspace violations to a psychological war through written articles," he said during a news conference after the tour. He referred to the Israeli military's frequent flying of its warplanes into Lebanese airspace.

"And now we've shown the falsehood of those articles," he told the group. "They are silly articles."

Read more: A halfway war pulses on Israel's border with Lebanon. Will it escalate?

Ihab Hamada, a member of Hezbollah's political bloc in the Lebanese parliament, told the state-run National News Agency that the group did not need the airport for its weapons.

The Israeli foreign ministry's official account on the social media platform X retweeted the Telegraph article, commenting that "in normal countries, airports are used for travel."

Israel has targeted Beirut's airport before. In 1968, Israeli special forces destroyed 12 passenger planes and two cargo planes on the airport's tarmac in retaliation for a Palestinian attack on an Israeli airliner.

In 2006, the same day that Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers, Israel bombed the airport and cut off all sea access to the country.

During the tour, journalists and diplomats were taken through a large warehouse, with airport workers looking nonplussed as the group walked between shambolic piles of boxes and floor-to-ceiling shelving units.

Responding to questions about the report, an airport security officer — who did not give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media — insisted that everything at the airport was aboveboard.

"Of course we haven't seen anything of what these reports are saying," the officer said.

Richard Mujais, the head of the state-run Middle East Airlines Ground Handling (MEAG), the company that handles all cargo at the airport, said that the cargo center was certified by several world bodies, including the European Commission and the International Air Transport Assn., and that multiple security agencies were involved in checking any incoming shipments before they entered the country.

Read more: In northern Israel, fears grow of a war that engulfs 'all the Middle East'

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israeli forces would reduce operations in Gaza and would shift their attention to Israel's north, with the intention of securing the area, and allow the return of some 60,000 Israelis displaced from the border areas. In Lebanon, roughly 100,000 people have had to leave their homes due to Israeli bombardment.

"If we can do it politically, that would be great," Netanyahu said. "If not, we will do it in another way, but we will bring everyone back home — all the residents of the north and the south."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.