BEIRUT (AFP) – The pro-Syrian Hezbollah coalition claimed it had a clear mandate to keep its weapons in defiance of international calls for disarmament after winning round two of Lebanon’s elections by a landslide.
The mighty Shiite Muslim Hezbollah and the rival Amal, campaigning on a pledge to keep up armed resistance against Israel, won all 23 seats in southern Lebanon in Sunday’s vote, Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa said.
The disarmament issue could prove to be a headache for the government that emerges after the elections, with a UN Security Council resolution sponsored by France and the United States last year demanding that all militias be stripped of their weapons.
In the first parliamentary poll since Syria was forced by intense global pressure to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon in April, the two groups maintained their grip on the volatile southern region still intermittently rocked by border clashes with Israel.
“The south has declared, clearly and before international observers, its backing for the resistance as a path for the past, present and future,” said Amal’s influential chief Nabih Berri, also Lebanon’s parliamentary speaker.
Shiite Muslims are the biggest single community in Lebanon and crowds of people gathered in the capital Beirut on Sunday, cheering the results of the second round and waving Hezbollah flags.
The first stage of the elections in Beirut last Sunday was won by anti-Syrian groups headed by Saad Hariri, the son of former premier Rafiq Hariri whose February assassination triggered a massive political upheaval.
A further two phases are being held in other parts of the country on the following two Sundays in elections being monitored for the first time by international observers.
Amal groups fought Israeli troops after they first invaded Lebanon in 1978, but the flame of the resistance was primarily carried by Hezbollah during the last 15 years of Syrian domination.
Hezbollah, the only armed group not required to lay down its weapons after the 1975-1990 civil war because it was spearheading the fight against Israel, has vowed to continue to fight for the disputed Shebaa Farms border area, scene of most recent cross-border clashes.
Hezbollah number two Sheikh Naim Qassem said voters “gave a clear message to the foreigners, particularly to the Americans, that the people of Lebanon are unified over the resistance and independence.”
The movement’s foreign relations chief told a Paris news conference that Hezbollah would “not hand over its weapons even if Israel withdraws from the Shebaa Farms,” citing the continued threat from persistent Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace.
But Washington refused to be moved by the show of support for Hezbollah in its southern stronghold.
“Our views on terrorist organizations are unchanged,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
“We’ve made those views very clear, and our belief that terrorist organizations need to be dismantled.”
With the two groups also likely to secure other seats in other regions in Lebanon’s four-stage vote, Amal and Hezbollah are expected to maintain a total of 17 and 12 MPs respectively.
Hezbollah and Amal — which once fought against each others during the civil war — have maintained an electoral alliance in successive legislative polls since the end of the civil war.
Sunday’s vote was held just days after the killing of prominent anti-Syrian journalist Samir Kassir, which like the murder of Hariri is blamed by many on Beirut’s pro-Syrian leaders and their political masters in Damascus.
Lebanon has some three million eligible voters, who are voting over four rounds for 128 parliamentary seats to be shared equally by the Christian and Muslim communities.