By Maha El Dahan and Laila Bassam
BEIRUT, Oct 21 (Reuters) – The leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces party denied on Thursday his group has fighters, dismissing accusations by Hezbollah that it has a militia and seeks civil war as the fallout of deadly violence in Beirut continues to roil Lebanon.
Already suffering a devastating economic meltdown, Lebanon has been overshadowed by renewed tensions since seven Shi’ite Muslims were shot dead in Beirut last week during the worst street violence in the capital in more than a decade.
The heavily armed, Iran-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah has accused the Lebanese Forces party of perpetrating the killing.
The Lebanese Forces, a group with close Saudi ties which had a powerful militia in the 1975-90 civil war, has denied any involvement.
In an interview with Lebanese broadcaster MTV on Thursday, LF leader Samir Geagea said the confrontation with Hezbollah was purely political and must remain so.
“We do not have fighters,” Geagea said.
Nobody should think about confronting Hezbollah militarily, Geagea said, saying this would be a big mistake.
Sources familiar with the matter told Reuters a military court would ask Geagea to give a statement about the Oct. 14 violence. The sources did not say when.
Asked about the report, Geagea said he had not been informed of any request for a statement, but if the court wants to take one from him it should first listen to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
Thursday’s shooting started as supporters of Hezbollah and its Shi’ite ally Amal were gathering for a demonstration against the lead investigator in the Beirut port blast probe.
HOLDING GOVERNMENT “HOSTAGE”
The army is still investigating the violence. Hezbollah has accused the LF of an ambush. There was no immediate response from Hezbollah to Geagea’s comments.
Geagea has said the trouble began when supporters of the Shi’ite parties entered the Christian neighbourhood of Ain al-Remmaneh where they vandalised cars and four residents were wounded before a shot was fired. On Thursday, Geagea said Ain al-Remmaneh had been subjected to “an invasion”.
He has said he did not know who had opened fire.
The army said on Saturday a soldier suspected of opening fire towards the protesters was under investigation.
The day of the incident, the army initially said gunfire had targeted protesters as they passed through the Teyouneh traffic circle dividing Christian and Shi’ite Muslim neighbourhoods. It later said there had been an “altercation and exchange of fire” as protesters were on their way to the demonstration.
The violence including the use of rocket-propelled grenades lasted several hours.
Geagea said Nasrallah aimed to halt the probe into the port blast.
Geagea said that while he initially thought Hezbollah had nothing to do with the explosion, “with its recent actions it is telling us that perhaps it might be concerned with the port explosion”.
Hezbollah has been leading demands for the lead investigator in the probe, Judge Tarek Bitar, to be removed, accusing him of bias. Bitar has not sought to question any Hezbollah members over the blast.
Bitar has sought to question several Hezbollah allies on suspicion of negligence that led to the blast, which killed more than 200 people and devastated swathes of Beirut.
In its efforts to stop the probe, Hezbollah has taken the current government “hostage”, Geagea said, referring to how standoff over Bitar has paralysed the cabinet.
(Reporting By Laila Bassam, writing by Maha El Dahan, Writing by Maha El Dahan and Tom Perry; editing by Mark Heinrich and Alistair Bell)