Hezbollah leader declares his group has 100,000 fighters

BEIRUT (AP) — The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah declared for the first time Monday that his powerful militant group has 100,000 trained fighters.

Hassan Nasrallah disclosed the size of the Shiite group’s militant arm in his first speech since seven people were killed in gunbattles on the streets of Beirut on Thursday. The confrontation erupted over a long-running probe into last year’s massive port blast in the city.

Verifying the numbers of the largely secretive militant group is difficult. If true, it would be larger than Lebanon’s armed forces, estimated to at about 85,000.

Nasrallah’s speech comes at a time of heightened tension in Lebanon over the clashes and the course of the investigation into the Aug. 4, 2020 blast in which over 215 people were killed.

Hezbollah and its allies have criticized the judge leading the investigation, asking that he be removed. The violence Thursday came as officials from Hezbollah have suggested the judge’s investigation is leaning toward holding them responsible for the gigantic explosion.

Thursday’s clashes saw gunmen battling each other for several hours with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades in the streets of Beirut. It was the most violent confrontation in the city in years, echoing the nation’s darkest era of the 1975-90 civil war.

In his speech, Nasrallah accused the head of a right-wing Christian party of seeking to ignite civil war in the small country. He accused Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, of “manufacturing” Thursday’s clashes in Beirut’s Tayuneh area and described him as a criminal and a killer.

“The real program for the Lebanese Forces is civil war,” Nasrallah said. “The biggest threat to the social peace in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces.”

Addressing Geagea, Nasrallah said: “Don’t miscalculate. Be wise and be polite and take a lesson from all your wars and all our wars.”

There was no immediate comment from Geagea.

Nasrallah claimed Geagea and his party have sought to scare Lebanon’s Christians over Hezbollah’s intentions, mostly to serve foreign countries that have also made the Shiite group an enemy, including the United States, Israel and some Gulf states.

Geagea is a close ally of Saudi Arabia, which is critical of the Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Geagea led the Lebanese Forces Christian militia during the 1975-90 civil war and spent more than a decade in prison. He was released after an amnesty following Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005. The anti-Syria Geagea now leads the Lebanese Forces political party.