Lebanon's Hezbollah leader declared for the first time that his powerful militant group has 100,000 trained fighters. His speech appeared to be meant as a deterrent to domestic foes following the nation's worst internal violence in years.
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah disclosed the size of the Shiite group's militant arm in his first speech since seven people were killed in gunbattles on the streets of Beirut — the worst street violence the city has seen in years. The confrontation erupted over a long-running probe into last year's massive port blast in the city.
It is difficult to verify the 100,000 fighters figure as Hezbollah is largely secretive. If true, it would be larger than the size of Lebanon's armed forces, estimated at about 85,000.
The speech came at a time of heightened tension in Lebanon over the clashes and the course of the investigation into the August 4, 2020 blast in which over 215 people were killed.
"We have prepared [those fighters] with their diverse weapons to defend our territory, our oil and gas that is being robbed before the eyes of Lebanese, to protect the dignity and sovereignty of our country from any aggression [and] terrorism and not for internal fighting," Nasrallah said.
In his speech, Nasrallah accused the head of a right-wing Christian party, Samir Geagea, of seeking to ignite civil war in the small country.
Addressing Geagea directly, Nasrallah said: "Don't miscalculate. Be wise and behave. Learn a lesson from all your wars and all our wars."
Geagea's office declined to immediately comment late Monday.
At the end of the country's 15-year civil war in 1990, Hezbollah was the only group to retain its weapons. It has fought several rounds of war with Israel and took credit for Israel's troop withdrawal from the country's south in 2000. Hezbollah has also sent its fighters to support Syria's armed forces in that country's decade-long civil war.
Hezbollah and its allies have been highly critical of Judge Tarek Bitar, who is in charge of the port blast investigation, accusing him of being selective and going after some officials and not others while seeking to politicise the probe. They asked that he be removed.
The clashes Thursday came as officials from Hezbollah have suggested the judge's investigation is leaning toward holding them responsible for the port blast.
Bitar has been criticised by other political groups, too, after he summoned senior officials as part of the investigation, including former ministers and a former prime minister, and charged them with intentional negligence that led to the deaths of over 215 people.
The judge has not publicly commented or responded to the criticism.
Thursday's clashes saw gunmen battling each other for several hours with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades in the streets of Beirut. It was the most violent confrontation in the city in years, echoing the nation's darkest era of the 1975-90 civil war.
Nasrallah accused Geagea of "manufacturing" Thursday's clashes in the Tayuneh area of the city and described him as a criminal and a killer.
"The real program for the Lebanese Forces is civil war," Nasrallah said. "The biggest threat to the social peace in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces."
Nasrallah accused Geagea and his party of seeking to scare Lebanon's Christians over Hezbollah's intentions. He said that's mostly to serve foreign countries that have also made the Shiite group an enemy, including the United States, Israel and some Gulf states.
Geagea is a close ally of Saudi Arabia, which is critical of Iran-backed Hezbollah.
Geagea led the Lebanese Forces Christian militia during the 1975-90 civil war and spent more than a decade in prison. He was released after an amnesty following Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005. The anti-Syria Geagea now leads the Lebanese Forces political party.
Nasrallah said his group and its ally, the Amal movement, expect results in an investigation into how the violence broke out Thursday. He suggested that if the army opened fire at protesters from the two Shiite groups, it should be held accountable.
It wasn't clear from Nasrallah's speech if his group and Amal are ending their call for the removal of the judge — a move considered by many as interference in judicial affairs.
The newly installed government has come to a standstill after opposition from Hezbollah- and Amal-allied ministers over government inaction against the judge. The crisis is the latest to beset the small nation of 6 million, already struggling with one of the worst financial crises in the world in the last 150 years.