BEIRUT (Reuters) - The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah said on Monday his Iran-backed group had not sent any weapons to Yemen and denied that it was behind the firing of a ballistic missile at Riyadh from Yemeni territory held by Tehran-allied Houthi forces.
In a televised address, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah also urged followers to listen to recent comments by Israeli officials which he said pointed to ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, Hezbollah’s arch foe.
An Israeli cabinet minister said this week that Israel has had covert contacts with Riyadh amid common concerns over Iran, a first disclosure by a senior official from either country of long-rumoured secret dealings.
Nasrallah also heaped criticism on Arab states that accused Hezbollah of terrorism at an emergency Arab League meeting on Sunday. He called the charge “trivial and ridiculous”, asking why Arab states were silent about what he described as the destructive war a Saudi-led coalition has waged in Yemen.
“I confirm to them, no ballistic missiles, no advanced weapons, and no guns ... we did not send weapons to Yemen,” or Bahrain, or Kuwait, or Iraq, he said.
Hezbollah had however sent arms to Palestinian territories, including anti-tank missiles, Nasrallah said. “I take pride in that. And in Syria there are the weapons we are fighting with,” he said.
Regional tensions have risen in recent weeks between Sunni Muslim monarchy Saudi Arabia and Shi‘ite Iran, whose rivalry has wrought upheaval in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain.
Arab League foreign ministers held an emergency meeting on Sunday at the request of Saudi Arabia to discuss ways to confront Iran and Hezbollah over their role in the region.
Saudi Arabia has accused the heavily armed Shi‘ite Hezbollah of helping Houthi rebels in Yemen and playing a role in the ballistic missile attack this month. Riyadh has been bogged down in the war it launched against the Houthis in Yemen in 2015.
“I categorically deny it,” Nasrallah said. “No man from Lebanese Hezbollah had any part in the firing of this missile or any missiles fired previously.”
Lebanon was thrust back to the forefront of the power struggle between Riyadh and Tehran after its prime minister quit abruptly in a broadcast from Saudi Arabia this month. In his shock resignation speech, Saad al-Hariri accused Iran and Hezbollah of “sowing strife” in the region.
Lebanese state officials and politicians close to Hariri say he was held in Riyadh against his will and forced to resign, which Riyadh and Hariri denied. Lebanese President Michel Aoun has refused to accept the resignation until Hariri comes home.
A long-time Saudi ally and Sunni leader, Hariri flew to France at the weekend and is expected to return to Beirut in time for independence day celebrations on Wednesday.
“We are all waiting for the return of the prime minister, whom we still consider has not resigned,” Nasrallah said. “When he comes, we will see. We are open to any dialogue and any discussion that happens in the country.”
Hariri took office last year in a power-sharing deal that saw Aoun, a Hezbollah political ally, become president. His coalition government includes Hezbollah, a military and political movement that wields great influence in Lebanon.
Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to support the Damascus government against mostly Sunni Syrian rebel factions, some of whom have received Saudi aid, and Islamic State militants.
Nasrallah also thanked Major-General Qassem Soleimani for what he described as his huge role in fighting Islamic State in the eastern Syrian town of Albu Kamal. Soleimani, commander of foreign operations for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, led the battle from the frontlines from the very beginning, he said.
“The battle must continue with the same strength ... and we must continue working to end the remnants of Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
Hezbollah could withdraw its large number of commanders from Iraq once Islamic State was defeated there, he said.
Reporting by Ellen Francis and Laila Bassam; Editing by Tom Perry and Janet Lawrence