Hezbollah says it downed Israel drone to boost deterrence

FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah gestures as he addresses his supporters via a screen in Beirut

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Hezbollah's leader said on Tuesday his Iran-backed movement had shot down an Israeli drone in Lebanon for the first time to strengthen deterrence against attack by arch-foe Israel.

On Monday, Hezbollah said it downed and took possession of an Israeli drone in south Lebanon after a flare-up at the border with Israel around a week ago.

The brief exchange of cross-border fire between Hezbollah and Israel marked the fiercest shelling exchange since the long-time enemies fought a deadly month-long war in 2006.

"Despite all the threats and intimidation, today we are affirming the balance of power and reinforcing the deterrent force that protects our country," Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech on Tuesday at a rally marking the Shi'ite Muslim ceremony of Ashura.

He added that there were no longer red lines that Hezbollah would not cross in defending Lebanon from Israeli aggression.

He said this does not mean U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war, would not be respected, but that Lebanon and its people had the right to self-defence.

The resolution banned all unauthorized weapons between the Litani River in south Lebanon and the U.N.-monitored frontier between Israel and Lebanon.

While the heavily-armed Hezbollah has largely kept its arms out of sight and pledged respect for resolution 1701, it retains a strong presence in the south where it enjoys wide support.

Lebanon's government has long complained to the United Nations about regular Israeli military flights in its airspace in breach of 1701.


SANCTIONS CAMPAIGN

Tensions rose in late August when two drones crashed in a Beirut southern suburb, which Hezbollah blamed on Israel and vowed to retaliate. Nasrallah has since said the flare-up ended but had launched a "new phase" between the two sides.

President Michel Aoun said on Tuesday that Lebanon was committed to 1701, which he accused Israel of violating.

"Any escalation by (Israel) will cause the collapse of stability in the border area," Aoun said on Twitter.

Nasrallah also said on Tuesday that the expanding U.S. global campaign of sanctions against Iran and its allies, including Hezbollah, was a form of "aggression".

Washington last month hit the Lebanese Jammal Trust Bank and its subsidiaries with sanctions, accusing it of ties with Hezbollah, which the bank denies.

This is part of a U.S. push in recent years to choke off Hezbollah's funding, alongside a slew of steps against Tehran since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew last year from a 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran.

Nasrallah said that when sanctions begin to hurt the Lebanese people, Hezbollah "should behave in a different way", without elaborating.

"To extend this aggression to affect other people -- to banks not owned by Hezbollah and which have no connection with them and to wealthy people or traders just because of their religious affiliation or political viewpoints -- this needs a different approach," he said.


(Reporting by Lisa Barrington,; Additional reporting by Ellen Francis and Laila Bassam; Editing by Catherine Evans, William Maclean)