(photo credit: AP)
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday night that information he continues to receive that Hizbullah "has rebuilt and increased its military capacity" to a higher level than before the Second Lebanon War "is deeply disconcerting."
In a report to the Security Council, Ban said it was critical for the militia to complete its transformation into a solely political party.
The secretary-general repeated his "urgent call on all Lebanese parties to immediately halt all efforts to rearm and engage in weapons training, and to instead return to dialogue and conciliation as the only viable method of settling issues and resolving the ongoing political crisis."
All parties must also affirm their commitment to the disarmament of militias, including Hizbullah, he said.
Ban said he expects "unequivocal cooperation" from the region, especially from Syria and Iran which maintain close ties with Hizbullah.
He called for an end to "foreign interference" that has worsened Lebanon's political crisis and urged rival Lebanese parties to elect a new president, warning against a power vacuum that could splinter the government.
Ban made clear that he was particularly referring to Syria, adding that he had again received information from countries in the region "that appears to corroborate the allegation that Syria facilitates the flow of weapons and fighters across the Syrian-Lebanese border."
The secretary-general expressed deep concern at the continuing insecurity in Lebanon, the apparent targeting of pro-Western members of Parliament for assassination, and widespread reports that all parties are re-arming in violation of a 2004 Security Council resolution which calls for the disarming and disbanding of all militias.
The attempt to choose a successor to pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud before he steps down on Nov. 24 has become Lebanon's most serious political crisis since the end of the 1975-90 civil war. Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's pro-Western, anti-Syrian government, which holds a slim majority in parliament, and pro-Syrian opposition factions led by the Hizbullah militant group have been deadlocked for 11 months.
Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri on Monday postponed a parliamentary session to elect a new president until Nov. 12 to give rival factions time to agree on a compromise candidate - just 12 days from Lahoud's departure. Failure to elect a president could throw the country's deep political crisis into a tailspin that could result in a power vacuum or two rival governments, a dark reminder of the last two years of the civil war when army units loyal to competing administrations battled it out.
"A return to political dialogue among the Lebanese parties is absolutely imperative under the current conditions, and the only way to resolve all relevant issues," Ban said. "There must not be a constitutional void at the level of the presidency, nor two rivaling governments. Constitutional provisions should be fully respected."
While there have been continuous attempts to resolve the political crisis, he said, "there continue to be widespread reports and allegations that parties and groups on all sides of the political spectrum are preparing for the possible failure of such negotiations, with armaments and military training reported widely."
The secretary-general said he is "acutely aware" that without political dialogue and the support and engagement "of all relevant external parties and supporters of Lebanon," the country will not be able to assert and sustain its authority throughout the country and political independence.
"But I am equally convinced that the deep foreign involvement in Lebanon has done little to decrease tension in that country," he said.
"Instead, the foreign penetration and interference in Lebanon has only worsened the crisis. It is time that foreign interference stop and that the Lebanese people and their political representatives, alone determine the fate of Lebanon," Ban stressed.
"In this context, I reiterate my expectation vis-a-vis Syria," he said.
The secretary-general urged Damascus to fully implement the 2004 resolution calling for disbanding all militias, strict respect for Lebanon's unity and political independence, and free and fair presidential elections. It was adopted in response to a decision to extend Lahoud's term for three years, which required changing the constitution and helped trigger the current crisis.
"I welcome the assertions and pledges in Syria's recent letter to me and expect to see Syria's commitment to Lebanon's sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and political independence reflected in further tangible steps in the coming period," Ban said.
While the "foreign interference" reference was directed at Syria, the secretary-general also noted Iran's support for Hizbullah. The opposition also accuses the United States of heavy involvement in Lebanese affairs in support of Saniora's government.
The anti-Syrian majority has accused Syria of responsibility for a string of political assassinations - an accusation Syria vehemently denies.
Ban said in the report that the assassinations of members of Saniora's ruling coalition have reduced its majority to 68 out of 127 members, raising the specter of "further deterioration" and upsetting the political balance that has existed since elections in spring 2005.
"The pattern of political assassinations in Lebanon strongly suggests a concerted effort aimed at undermining the democratic institutions of Lebanon," he said.