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Concerns rise as arms flow to Lebanon

The United Nations expressed 'grave concern' last week about weapons being smuggled across the border from Syria.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 7, 2007

Yahfoufa, Lebanon

Ali Mohammed carefully pours another jerry can of diesel fuel into a barrel, where the blue-tinged liquid glugs down a rubber pipe into a tank hidden in the back of a van. Soon the contraband diesel will be on the road to Beirut, where it will be sold on the black market.

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Dozens of remote Lebanese villages in the eastern Bekaa Valley tucked into the rugged mountainous border between Lebanon and Syria traditionally rely on smuggling commercial goods such as diesel, cigarettes, and cement, taking advantage of the price differences between the two countries.

But it is the alleged smuggling of weapons and the transit of militants from Syria into Lebanon that has drawn the attention of the United Nations and raised the prospect of deploying UN troops along the porous frontier.

Last week, the UN Security Council stated its "grave concern" about reports of arms smuggling and the alleged rearming of militants in Lebanon.

Some 8,000 Lebanese soldiers are deployed along the border with Syria, but they lack the training and equipment to successfully thwart arms smuggling. Analysts in Lebanon say that the Army also may lack the will to block weapons destined for the powerful Shiite group Hizbullah.

Hizbullah's leaders say that their arms stocks have been replenished and even increased since last summer's month-long war with Israel. It is widely believed that the fresh arms supplies to Hizbullah came via the Syrian border. A UN fact-finding team reported in June that only some commercial goods had been seized by Lebanese border security units.

"No seizure involved weapons or explosives," the report said, describing the lack of results as "worrying."

US wants UN troops at the border

The US and Israel have been pushing to deploy some of the 13,300-strong UN peacekeeping force, known as UNIFIL, which currently operates in south Lebanon along the border with Syria, to block weapons smuggling. However, analysts say the UN may balk at policing the remote Lebanese-Syrian border, particularly as the move is opposed by Hizbullah and Syria, the latter having described the deployment of foreign troops as a "hostile act."

"It would mean changing UNIFIL's mandate, and I don't think the Lebanese government or contributors to UNIFIL want a new force along the border given the reactions of Syria and Hizbullah," says Timur Goksel, university lecturer in Beirut who served with UNIFIL from 1979-2003.

Southern Lebanon, with its population long accustomed to foreign peacekeepers, is mild compared with Lebanon's eastern border, where clan loyalties and tribal politics carry greater sway than the Lebanese state.

"If foreign troops want to stop weapons coming in, that's fine. But we have to eat. And if they stop us bringing in diesel then there will be a war," says Radwan Ayoub, another smuggler helping Mohammed unload the jerry cans.