BEIRUT (AFP) — A private telephone network built by the Shiite Hezbollah organisation is at the centre of a political storm that has brought Lebanon perilously close to a new civil war.
The landline network, which Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh said was installed with the help of Hezbollah's patron Iran, was crucial to Hezbollah thwarting a massive Israeli assault in a ferocious war two years ago.
The Israelis jammed cellphone networks to prevent Hezbollah commanders from communicating with units in the field, but the landline network continued to function.
An attack on the network could severely curtail Hezbollah's ability to defend itself from Israel or from an attack by domestic opponents.
Hamadeh recently told the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat that the network had been completed in southern Lebanon, along the Israeli border, as well in the eastern Bekaa Valley, in southern Beirut and several Christian areas in Mount Lebanon.
He said work was currently under way to complete infrastructure in the north.
After a marathon cabinet session on Monday, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora's government declared the network illegal.
In response, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said in a fiery speech on Thursday that this was a "declaration of war" against Hezbollah, which considers the phones system to be a "major weapon" in its arsenal.
Nasrallah threatened to "cut off the hand" of anyone who tried to meddle with the network.
Sixteen people were killed in three days of fighting across the country between opposition supporters and backers of the government before an uneasy calm descended late on Friday.
Hamadeh had said the "issue of communications has been under discussion for a long time, but we were waiting for Hezbollah to respond to the security authorities who requested they stop all infringements.
"Unfortunately Hezbollah refused to stop its activity and continued with its illegal acts. Not only that but Hezbollah has been harbouring criminals and fugitives from justice and has been refusing to cooperate with the Lebanese security forces in applying law and order in the areas under their control.
"All this leads us to believe they are establishing a state within the state of Lebanon."
According to the newspaper, Iran has used an Iranian company that was rebuilding homes destroyed during the 2006 war to lay cables for the Hezbollah network.
Hamadeh claimed Hezbollah wants to link all the militias in Lebanon, Syria and Iran via a vast network.
"Their goal is not security resistance. They want to connect between all the Iranian and Syrian militias and they want to eavesdrop on everyone," he said.
According to a Lebanese government report, the network is capable of tracking 100,000 numbers using a digital format in which each number is five digits long.
Other reports say the Hezbollah hardware can hook up to Lebanon's main telephone network.
Hamadeh told An-Nahar newspaper that the issue of Hezbollah's communications network is "no longer an issue concerning the security of the resistance, but rather the security of Lebanon and toppling its regime."
On Wednesday, the day fighting broke out in Beirut, An-Nahar said officials had received direct threats warning them not to touch the telecommunications network.
At the same time they were warned to leave Brigadier General Wafiq Shqeir untouched in his job as airport security chief, even after surveillance cameras under Hezbollah control were reportedly found there.
Nonetheless the cabinet announced a decision to transfer Shqeir to the army, removing him amid concerns over his relationship with Hezbollah.
An opposition official told the "NOW Lebanon" website that the phone network is not a new story, and accused those who have brought the issue back to the fore of seeking to trigger an explosion on the domestic political scene.
"The network is identical to Hezbollah's arms and (is) part of its security, and it's obvious that this effort is part of an American agenda to internationalise the country and its security," he said.
There have been reports in the past that the government offered to overlook the network if Hezbollah ends its 16-month-old sit-in in downtown Beirut, which is aimed at toppling the government.
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