Drone shot down over Israel was ours, says Hezbollah leader Nasrallah
Aircraft was designed by Iran and assembled by our experts, group's leader declares; Netanyahu had earlier blamed the Lebanese militants
Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, declared that his fighters had assembled and piloted a drone that flew 55 kilometres into Israel.
He called Saturday's flight an unprecedented achievement in "the history of the resistance".
In a televised, 50-minute speech on Thursday, Nasrallah said the drone, which was shot down by Israel, had been designed in Iran and assembled by Hezbollah experts in Lebanon.
"It is our right to send other drones whenever we want," Nasrallah said, noting that Israel frequently violated Lebanese airspace. "It was not the first time and it will not be the last."
Hours earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had accused Hezbollah, also a political organisation, over the episode, saying Israel had "thwarted over the weekend Hezbollah's attempt" to pierce its airspace. The group has sent a drone over Israel at least once before.
There was no official reaction from Israel to Nasrallah's speech, or warnings about the need for a military response against Hezbollah in Lebanon. If anything, there seemed to be an attempt to point a finger at Hezbollah's patron, the more distant Iran.
"It should come as no surprise that the military machine of Hezbollah in Lebanon is substantially made in Iran," a senior official said.
Nasrallah's speech was closely watched because of fears that Hezbollah might provoke a clash with Israel to distract attention from Syria's crackdown on the uprising there. Hezbollah has been accused by the United States, Syrian rebels and Lebanese rivals of assisting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his crackdown.
The possibility of Syria becoming a proxy war, with involvement from Hezbollah and Iran on one side and such powers as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar on the other, is one of many factors that could fuel regional escalation of the conflict.
Nasrallah denied he had ordered his fighters into Syria, but said the group reserved the right to join the battle in the future.
At the same time, he appeared to subtly distance himself from Assad. He never mentioned Assad's name, speaking only of "the Syrian regime", and refrained from praising Syria's government as a pillar of resistance against Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories. "As of now, we have not fought alongside the regime," he said, adding, "We don't know about the future."
He obliquely acknowledged that some individual Hezbollah militants may have fought there. Because of the vagaries of post-colonial borders, he said, more than 30,000 Lebanese live in Syria, including Shiites, some of whom were members of Hezbollah and veterans of its wars. Some of them, he said, have fought to defend against rebel attacks on their homes and villages, including kidnappings and mortar attacks on Syrian checkpoints protecting the villages.
"What can we expect them to do?" he said. A senior Hezbollah operative who died recently while performing "jihadist duties" had been killed in an accidental weapons explosion, not fighting in Syria, he said.
Hezbollah, formed 30 years ago to fight the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and which battled Israel again in 2006, has long relied on Syria as a conduit for arms. With its Shiite Muslim base, the group is a natural ally of Assad's ruling Alawites, who practise an offshoot of Shia.
But with many Lebanese Sunnis supporting the Sunni-led Syrian uprising, Hezbollah is also wary of inflaming sectarian tensions at home. Nasrallah said Syrians of many sects were under threat from the Syrian uprising.
It was a reminder that independent of Assad's fate, Hezbollah may see Shiite or Lebanese interests as at stake in Syria, like preserving access to an important Shiite shrine in Damascus and defending minority groups, as well as Hezbollah's arms flow.
Hezbollah's image as a champion of the oppressed in the wider Arab and Muslim worlds has been hurt by its support for Assad. The speech appeared intended to show Hezbollah would remain a force against Israel even if Assad falls.