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Lebanon to probe Hezbollah phone network

Airport security chief re-assigned over Hezbollah ties

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The Lebanese government said on Tuesday it was launching a judicial probe into a telecommunication network which the militant group Hezbollah had set up across the country with the alleged help of Iran.

Information Minister Ghazi Aridi told reporters after a marathon cabinet meeting through the night that the network was illegal and the government would pursue the matter through the legal system.

Hezbollah, which is locked in a long-running power struggle with the Western-backed government, insists the network is needed as part of its resistance struggle against Israel and for security purposes.

"This network is part of our military arsenal and the council of ministers cannot deprive us of it or prevent us from defending the country, whether it pleases some or not," Hezbollah's number two, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said on Monday.

Aridi, however, said the cabinet had rejected these assertions and planned to hand over to the Arab League documents on the case and on the suspected Iranian involvement.

The cabinet overnight also decided to reassign the head of security at the airport, Brigadier General Wafiq Shoukair, following allegations that he was close to Hezbollah.

He was allegedly aware of surveillance cameras which the Shiite Muslim group is said to have set up near Beirut airport to monitor the comings and goings of anti-Syrian politicians and foreign officials.

A judicial probe has also been launched into the airport case.

Aridi said that Shoukair was being reassigned to the army, while "the government will pursue the issue of the cameras installed by Hezbollah to monitor the airport runway."

The issue of the cameras first came to light last week when anti-Syrian leader Walid Jumblatt accused Hezbollah of using them to monitor traffic at the airport and to possibly fly in arms from Iran.

Hezbollah has rejected the allegations.

Beirut's international airport is located in the mainly Shiite southern suburbs which are largely controlled by Hezbollah.

Lebanon for more than a year has been mired in its worst political crisis since the end of the country's civil war in 1990 because of the standoff between the majority and the opposition.

The crisis has prevented the election of a president since Emile Lahoud, a Syrian-backed figure, stepped down as head of state in November and has raised fears of new civil strife.