Obama urges Lebanon to clamp down on arms smuggling

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- Obama says arms smuggling is extensive

- Says U.S. wants to help strengthen Lebanese military

- Lebanese president complains of Israeli threats (Adds Hezbollah denial of the Israeli assertion, paragraph 3)

By Ross Colvin

WASHINGTON, Dec 14 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama pressed Lebanon on Monday to crack down on arms smuggling into the country, saying the weapons posed a potential threat to neighboring Israel.

The United States accused Iran last month of illicit arms deliveries to Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah guerrilla group, which fought a war with Israel in 2006.

Israel said in November that its navy had seized a ship carrying hundreds of tonnes of Iranian-supplied weapons to Hezbollah, a political movement and also the dominant military force in Lebanon, stronger even than the Lebanese army. Hezbollah denied any connection to the shipment.

Obama said after a meeting with Lebanese President Michel Sleiman there had been some progress in enforcing a U.N. Security Council resolution banning such shipments, but more needed to be done.

"President Sleiman emphasized his concerns with respect to Israel. I emphasized our concerns about the extensive arms that are smuggled into Lebanon that potentially serve as a threat to Israel," Obama told reporters.

"It is in the interest of all parties concerned that enforcement is exerted with respect to such smuggling."

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 34-day war in 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah, banned all unauthorized weapons between the Litani River and the Blue Line, the U.N.-monitored border between Israel and Lebanon.

Israel has criticized the 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, UNIFIL, for not stopping weapons it says are flowing to Hezbollah guerrillas. The United Nations says that is the responsibility of the Lebanese authorities.

Obama said the United States was committed to helping to strengthen the Lebanese armed forces so that they were in a better position to secure their country's borders.

U.S. military assistance to Lebanon since 2006 has exceeded $400 million and planned deliveries of materiel include artillery, tanks and aerial drones.

For his part, Sleiman, said he had complained about "Israeli threats" against his country and urged Obama to press Israel to withdraw its forces from areas such as Shebaa Farms, a stretch of territory that Lebanon claims as its own but which the United Nations recognizes as belonging to Syria.

Both Israel and Lebanon accuse each other of violating the U.N.-brokered ceasefire that ended the 2006 war.

Lebanon has complained of Israeli surveillance overflights, but Israel insists such flights are needed to monitor the rearming of Hezbollah and the movements of its fighters. (Editing by Eric Beech and Mohammad Zargham)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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