'No sign of war with Hizbullah soon'

Exclusive: UNIFIL chief says situation in Lebanon far more stable now.

Asarta Cuevas 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Asarta Cuevas 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
UNIFIL has not found any evidence of Hizbullah military activity and smuggling or the presence of guerilla fighters in its area of operations in Southern Lebanon, the commander of the multinational peacekeeping force, Maj.-Gen. Alberto Asarta Cuevas, has told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive first interview to the Israeli press.
He said the situation in Lebanon today was far more stable than it was before war broke out in July 2006 and that, contrary to some predictions in Israel, there was no reason to be concerned that war would break out between Israel and Hizbullah this summer.
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Cuevas, from Spain, took up the UNIFIL command in late January after serving as adviser to the Spanish chief of staff. Prior to that he served as commander of UNIFIL’s eastern sector for about six months until April 2009.
“UNIFIL is focused on specific tasks under its mandate, which relates to a specific area south of the Litani River,” Cuevas told the Post ahead of the fourth anniversary of the Second Lebanon War.
“From that perspective, the most important thing is that our area of operations is not utilized for any hostile activity, there are no breaches of the cessation of hostilities, and there are no illegal armed personnel in this area. We have not found evidence of any new military infrastructure or any armed or guerrilla group in this area.”
Cuevas’s assessment comes in direct contradiction to IDF claims that Hizbullah is widely deployed in Lebanon and has dramatically bolstered its military infrastructure since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, primarily within the 160 villages in Southern Lebanon.
But Cuevas said that UNIFIL had not come across Hizbullah positions or fighters, or even evidence that the military organization was smuggling weaponry from northern Lebanon into the south and across the Litani River. UNIFIL, he said, conducted about 10,000 patrols throughout its area of operations every month in addition to the 100 permanent checkpoints that the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) maintains throughout the area.
“UNIFIL and the LAF also maintain six co-located checkpoints along the Litani crossings and have in place other measures to prevent smuggling of weapons and entry of armed elements. Until now there is no evidence of smuggling across the Litani,” he said.
Asked specifically about Israeli claims that Syria has transferred long-range missiles to Hizbullah, such as Scuds and M-600s, Cuevas said that UNIFIL had not come across any such evidence.
At the same time, Cuevas mentioned the explosion last July of a Hizbullah arms cache inside a home in the village of Hirbet Sleim, as well as the interception in December of a group of individuals, likely from Hizbullah, who were transporting 250 kilograms of explosives.
“All these instances show that implementation of this task is a long-term endeavor, and underlines the need for UNIFIL and LAF to remain focused on further enhancing security control in the area. We take this matter with utmost seriousness,” he said.
Ultimately, Cuevas said that while the situation in Lebanon today wasfar more stable than before the war in 2006, it would remain precariousuntil a political process began that would install a permanentcease-fire between the sides.
“What is important now is that the cessation of hostilities is takenfurther and solidified by a permanent cease-fire that Resolution 1701envisages. This has to be achieved through a political process, whichis outside the remit of UNIFIL, but UNIFIL provides a strong foundationfor it,” he said.
Cuevas also called Israel’s continued flights over Lebanon a clear violation of Resolution 1701 and Lebanese sovereignty.
“The UN continues to urge Israel to end the overflights, and this pointwas made once again by the UN Secretary-General during his meeting lastFebruary with Defense Minister Ehud Barak,” he said. “The daily airviolations not only exacerbate local apprehensions, but also underminethe overall credibility of UNIFIL and the LAF.”