Tension prevailed across southern Lebanon on Sunday in the wake of a stoning attack by followers of the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah that left 14 UN peacekeepers injured.
Problems started on Saturday afternoon when a UN Interim Force in Southern Lebanon (UNIFIL) team, accompanied by a Lebanese army patrol, tried to enter the village of Khirbit Selim to search a house for a suspected ammunition depot, a villager who requested anonymity said.
As the joint force tried to enter the village, some 100 villagers believed to be loyal to Hezbollah started to throw stones, slightly injuring 14 peacekeepers — three Italians and 11 French, the villager told a reporter from the German Press Agency DPA.
The Voice of Lebanon radio broadcaster reported that Khirbit Selim residents smashed the windows of two UN vehicles as the French peacekeepers tried to inspect the house.
Lebanon’s official National News Agency also reported that residents blocked main roads with burning tires after engaging in fistfights with the peacekeepers and throwing stones at them to protest the patrol’s attempt to raid the house.
The house was near the site last Tuesday’s explosion of a suspected Hezbollah weapons storage facility.
The UN and the Lebanese army have launched an investigation into the explosion. Hezbollah has so far refused comment on the incident.
Shiite clergy loyal to Hezbollah in Tyre issued a press statement strongly denouncing the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon and accusing the international force’s presence in south Lebanon of working for “Israel’s benefit and not Lebanon’s.”
The Lebanese army issued a statement on Sunday expressing regret for Saturday’s incident and reaffirmed its commitment to “work closely with UNIFIL on implementing UNSC 1701,” the UN Resolution that ended a 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel in Lebanon.
A Lebanese security source described the attack by residents as “very serious,” as it is considered an attempt to stop an investigation near the site of a recent explosion.
Yasmina Bouziane, UNIFIL spokeswoman, told DPA that peacekeepers had to fire warning shots to clear the way.
Bouziane said the incident took place only 1km from the blast site. She said tensions were easing on Sunday, but that the investigation was ongoing.
The number of UN peacekeepers in Lebanon was boosted to 13,300 members after the 2006 war. Almost 1,200 people, mostly Lebanese civilians, died in the war.
Relations between UN forces and Hezbollah and its allies have been largely good since the deployment of UNIFIL.
However, Hezbollah has refused to hand over its weapons, claiming that its arsenal is needed to protect Lebanon from any Israeli attack.