'Hizbullah has a few thousand fighters'

Israel downplays report of 50,000 Hizbullah men; Jewish institutions worldwide beefing up security.

hizbullah 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
hizbullah 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The army is on high alert along the northern border following reports that Hizbullah has deployed 50,000 men in southern Lebanon after last week's assassination of arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh in Syria. Defense officials expressed skepticism over the reports, saying Hizbullah had only several thousand fighters in total. The officials also said there were no indications on the ground of an increase in the Islamist organization's forces in the area. According to the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, Hizbullah has evacuated several political headquarters in southern Lebanon. The report also said the American Embassy in Beirut had put its staff on alert, and that all US officials in the area had been asked to be more vigilant than usual. Last week, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi ordered the Northern Command, air force and navy to raise their level of alert out of concern that Hizbullah will retaliate for the assassination of Mughniyeh by attacking in the North. Hizbullah and its Iranian backers have accused Israel of killing Mughniyeh, and Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah vowed in a eulogy to the slain operative on Thursday that his Shi'ite guerrilla group would retaliate against Israeli interests anywhere in the world. Israel has denied any role in the killing, and Syria has not said who it believes was behind the blast. On Israel's recommendation, Jewish institutions worldwide beefed up security over the weekend. Israeli officials traveling abroad have been ordered to take precautions against efforts by Hizbullah to kidnap them. The FBI ordered its Joint Terrorism Task Forces across the US to look for any signs of increased Hizbullah activity. "Security for Jewish organizations and Jewish institutions around the world is a 365-day concern and has been for a long time," said Michael Salberg, director of international affairs for the Anti-Defamation League in New York. Meanwhile, Syria has denied Iranian reports that the two countries would conduct a joint investigation into Mughniyeh's assassination. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Reza Sheikh Attar announced the joint probe on Friday, according to Iran's official news agency. But an unnamed Syrian official dismissed the report as "totally baseless" and said Damascus would conduct the investigation alone, Syria's state-run news agency reported late Friday. AP contributed to this report