BEIRUT, Lebanon, Sept. 21 (UPI) -- In a veiled provocation of the U.N. peacekeeping forces in Lebanon, Syrian President Bashar Assad warned the international troops might turn against Hezbollah.
Beirut's pro-Syrian dailies al-Akhbar and As-Safir reported Thursday that Assad told a Lebanese Islamic delegation who visited him earlier this week that the enlargement of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, to which several European countries contributed troops, and the amendment of its mandate "might transform these forces into NATO troops" with powers similar to those they had in Bosnia.
Assad was quoted as warning that UNIFIL might lose "its neutrality in overlooking the ceasefire (between Israel and Hezbollah) and become a hostile and repressive force, biased to one party or another."
Assad's comments on UNIFIL-2, whose number was increased to 15,000 troops, was considered by local observers as an indirect indictment against the international force, bringing back memories of suicide attacks against U.S. and French troops who were deployed to Lebanon following Israel's 1982 invasion.
Assad rejected any UNIFIL presence on the Lebanese-Syrian border, saying their deployment there "will be considered a hostile action and further complicate problems."
He also warned against "a bid by certain Lebanese factions to take Lebanon out of its Arab framework and drag it towards the Western plan for internationalization." He was clearly referring to the multi-sectarian anti-Syrian coalition known as the "March 14 Gathering."
Assad charged that setting up an international tribunal to try suspects in the Feb. 14, 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is tantamount to an "internationalization of the Lebanese judiciary."
Syria was largely blamed for Hariri's assassination, and faced accusations that the Syrian regime was directly responsible for the crime.
Assad said he fears "Israel might attack Syria" under the pretext that Damascus is backing Iran. "But Syria will be ready to resist and will not surrender," he said.