Switzerland stops selling weapons to Lebanon

Bern has accused a Lebanese politician of refusing to disclose 31 weapons, which he denies

FILE -- In this Feb. 20, 2019 photo a man holds a weapon of the gun maker Heckler & Koch in Berlin, Germany. The regional court in the German city of Stuttgart has convicted two former employees of gun maker Heckler & Koch over their role in delivering weapons that ended up in troubled areas of Mexico. It has fined the company 3.7 million euros ($4.2 million), the value of the proceeds. (Wolfgang Kumm/dpa via AP, file)
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Switzerland sparked a diplomatic row with Lebanon when it announced on Thursday that it had suspended arms exports to the country, citing fears that a 2016 shipment of weapons might have been sold to an unauthorised third party.

In a statement, the Swiss State Secretary for Economic Affairs said that despite trying multiple times, it had been unable to locate 31 of the 40 submachine guns and automatic rifles that it sold to a Lebanese politician three years ago.

“We do not know if the missing weapons were transferred to another recipient or if access was refused to the Swiss authorities for other reasons”, the statement read. The risk that they had been transferred to an unauthorised third party had “become high”, it added.

The buyer, MP Ghazi Zeaiter, had committed himself to not reselling them without Switzerland’s explicit agreement and to authorise routine inspections. There had been no incidents during previous checks conducted in 2013 and 2015, wrote the Seco.

Mr Zeaiter refuted the Swiss accusations on Friday.

Mr Zeaiter confirmed that he bought the 10 automatic rifles and 30 submachine guns in 2016 for his personal protection “in light of the dangerous security threats” and “terrorist attacks on the eastern border” with Syria, in the governorate of Baalbek-Hermel. The weapons were purchased with his own funds and are scattered between his houses in Beirut and Baalbek-Hermel.

But he accused the Swiss authorities of refusing to inspect the weapons despite being informed of their location. Mr Zeaiter invites them to “communicate” with him to “arrange a visit to reveal the weapons and do what is required”.

His version of events was disputed by Elisabeth Gilgen, the deputy head of mission at the Swiss Embassy in Beirut.

The weapons deal was made with Mr Zeaiter in his capacity as a Lebanese minister, not as a private person, she said.

"We sold to a ministry, a government institution, and the recipient, according to the contract, signed as a representative of the Lebanese government", she told Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star.

“If the Lebanese government can’t guarantee the contractual obligations they agreed upon, we have to take action. We have to justify this [sale] to our constituency", she said.

Mr Zeaiter, who is 70 years old, was first elected MP in Baalbek-Hermel in 1996, according to a biography published by the Lebanese state-run National News Agency. He was appointed defence minister in 1998, minister of social affairs in 2004, and minister of public works and transportation in 2014, a post which he held when he bought the weapons two years later.

The MP had previously told Lebanese daily Al Akhbar that when the Swiss military attaché asked him last year to locate the weapons, he had shown the diplomat nine of them kept in the Lebanese capital.

The MP said he did not show the rest of the weapons in his Baalbek-Hermel home because of “time constraints”. Driving to the governorate (Baalbek-Hermel) from Beirut takes between two and three hours.

The military attaché later requested a second visit to see the weapons located in Baalbek-Hermel. But Mr Zeaiter claimed the diplomat's team declined his invitation to visit his home in the region, without specifying a reason.

The Swiss ban on arms exports to Lebanon caused an uproar as it fuelled speculation that the 40 weapons had been lost by the Lebanese army.

Lebanese Defence Minister Elias Bou Saab reacted with outrage, denying the Swiss allegations.

“Those who spread false information about the Lebanese army should be careful,” he told the website of Lebanese TV station MTV.

International weapon sales to Lebanon are under heavy surveillance because of fears that they could be end up in the hands of Hezbollah, the country’s most powerful militia.

Mr Zeaiter is affiliated to Amal, a Shia party and Hezbollah’s main ally in local politics.

At the end of the 1975-90 civil war, Hezbollah was the only militia allowed to keep its weapons to continue fighting Israel. Today, the party is well represented in the Lebanese government and parliament. The US deems the group to be a terrorist organisation, while the EU make a distinction between its political and military activities.

A Lebanese army spokesperson told Lebanese TV LBCI that the army had never received weapons from Switzerland, whether bought or donated.

The initial statement published by the Seco did not, however, reference the Lebanese army. It specified that sales to Lebanon were already restricted to Lebanese security teams tasked with protecting politicians such as the Presidential Guard.

In a press release, Mr Zeaiter said that deeply regretted the media hype and "refused to involve the Lebanese army or any officials in this matter".