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 (SECO) said that it had been unable to locate 31 of the 40 submachine guns and automatic rifles that it sold to a Lebanese buyer 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, adding that the risk that they had been transferred to an unauthorised third party had “become high”.
The weapons buyer had committed himself to not re-selling them without Switzerland’s explicit agreement and to authorise routine inspections. There had been no incidents during previous checks conducted in 2013 and 2015.
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.
At the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, the Shia party was allowed to keep its weapons to continue fighting Israel on the southern border. Today, Hezbollah 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.
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.
However, Switzerland does not sell weapons to the Lebanese army. In the statement, the SECO said that it only sold arms to Lebanese security teams tasked to protecting politicians such as the Presidential Guard. Details later emerged pointing the finger at a local politician called Ghazi Zeaiter.
The 70-year-old, who was first elected MP in 1996, is affiliated to Amal, a Shia party and Hezbollah’s main ally in local politics.
Mr Zeaiter 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 weapons from Switzerland two years later.
Referring to him only as an “ex-minister”, the Swiss ambassador to Lebanon, Monika Schmutz Kirgöz, told local TV channel LBCI on Thursday that he refused to cooperate when asked about the fate of the missing weapons.
The new ban applies to all Lebanese politicians as well as the Lebanese army and will not be reversed until the weapons are found, said Mrs Kirgöz.
In response, a Lebanese army spokesperson told LBCI that the army had never received weapons from Switzerland, whether bought or donated.
In an interview with daily newspaper Al Akhbar, Mr Zeaiter confirmed on Friday that he bought the weapons with his own funds for his personal security. The 10 automatic rifles and 30 submachine guns are scattered between his home in Beirut and his home in the Bekaa region.
Mr Zeaiter said that when the Swiss military attaché asked him last year to locate the weapons, he only showed the diplomat nine weapons kept in the Lebanese capital.
The MP said he did not show the rest of the weapons in his Bekaa home because of “time constraints”. Driving to the Bekaa from Beirut takes between an hour and a half and three hours.
The military attaché later requested a second time to see the weapons located in the Bekaa. But Mr Zeaiter claimed the diplomat’s team declined his invitation to visit his home in the region, without specifying a reason.
“The Swiss only have to communicate with me to arrange a visit,” he told Al Akhbar.