Foreign diplomats tour Beirut airport after weapons claims

The cargo storage facility at Beirut's international airport, during a tour organised by the Lebanese Ministry of Public Works and Transport (ANWAR AMRO)
The cargo storage facility at Beirut's international airport, during a tour organised by the Lebanese Ministry of Public Works and Transport (ANWAR AMRO)

Senior Lebanese officials on Monday defended procedures at Beirut airport during a tour for journalists and diplomats, a day after a British daily alleged Hezbollah was storing weapons at the facility.

The accusations came during escalating exchanges of fire and bellicose rhetoric between Lebanon's Hezbollah movement and Israeli forces, which have engaged in near-daily fire since war in Gaza began.

Hezbollah has been acting in support of its Palestinian ally Hamas since the militant group's October 7 attack on Israel that sparked the Gaza war.

On Sunday, British daily The Telegraph reported that Hezbollah was storing missiles and rockets at Beirut airport, where "whistleblowers" had reported the arrival of "unusually big boxes" from Iran.

Hezbollah has not made any official comment.

"The airport adheres to international standards," said Transport Minister Ali Hamieh, who led the visit together with Lebanon's ministers for foreign affairs, tourism and information.

Representatives from foreign missions including Egypt, Germany and the European Union delegation joined the tour of the airport's warehouse facilities.

Hamieh on Sunday held a press conference to reject The Telegraph report as false and "to say that there are no weapons entering or leaving Beirut." He invited ambassadors and reporters for the tour.

At the airport, Hamieh described The Telegraph report as part of "psychological war" on Lebanon and said it was a "distortion of the reputation" of Lebanon's only international airport.

The tour "included an import and export centre... that accounts for 20 percent of the import traffic and is concerned with services for Iranian planes which were the subject of The Telegraph report", Hamieh said.

Another warehouse accounted for the remaining 80 percent of imports and exports, he told a press conference.

- 'Lies' -

Israel has for years accused Hezbollah of keeping weapons in installations throughout Lebanon, including near Beirut airport, an accusation Hezbollah has denied.

Israel bombed Beirut airport when it last went to war with Hezbollah in 2006.

The airport's manager, Fadi El-Hassan, said all aircraft arriving at the facility, including Iranian planes, "are subject to the same customs procedures".

Egyptian ambassador Alaa Moussa said that while diplomats were not responsible for inspecting the airport for prohibited items, "our presence (at the tour) is a message of support" to Lebanon and "a message to all parties that what is needed... is calm".

The United States, Israel's key ally, said its ambassador did not attend the tour of the Beirut airport but that Washington had been in touch with Lebanese authorities over the allegations in the Telegraph article.

“We've seen the statement from the government of Lebanon that the report's not grounded in fact. We take these issues extremely seriously and monitor them very closely," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said, without offering a US assessment on whether the report was accurate.

More than eight months of cross-border fire between Hezbollah and Israeli forces have left at least 481 people dead in Lebanon, mostly fighters, but also including 94 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

Israeli authorities say at least 15 soldiers and 11 civilians have been killed in the country's north.

Housewife Rola Qassem, aged around 50, who had just arrived from Ivory Coast to spend summer in south Lebanon with her family, said she didn't believe the reports of weapons being stored at the airport.

"It's all lies so that people are afraid to go to Lebanon, to stop tourism," she told AFP.