UNITED NATIONS: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday accused Lebanon's Hezbollah of manufacturing weapons next to a "gas station" in Beirut, warning of "another tragedy" if it explodes. Israel has repeatedly accused the Shiite movement Hezbollah, backed by Israel's arch-foe Iran, of building missiles to attack the Jewish state. Hezbollah swiftly denied the latest charge and invited journalists to visit the site.

In a video speech from Jerusalem broadcast to the UN General Assembly in New York, Netanyahu presented a map with coordinates he said showed a "secret weapons depot" in Beirut's southern suburb of Jnah, a stronghold of the movement. Beirut is still reeling from an August 4 explosion when a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate exploded in the port, killing more than 190 people, wounding thousands and ravaging large parts of the city.

The Israeli illustrations showed what Netanyahu said was a weapons depot sandwiched between two compounds. The alleged precision missile factory is "a few metres away from a gas station" on one side, and 50 metres (164 feet) from a "gas company" on the other. "If this thing explodes, it's another tragedy," Netanyahu said. The site is also close to Beirut's international airport. The Israeli images appeared to show cooking gas depots, but there are also petrol stations nearby according to Google Maps.

Netanyahu showed details of two other alleged missile production sites, in Beirut's Laylaki and Choueifat districts, which he said were located under apartment buildings. "I say to the people of Lebanon, Israel means you no harm," he added. "But Iran does. Iran and Hezbollah have deliberately put you and your families in grave danger."

Prompt media tour
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah retorted in a previously announced address that Netanyahu was "inciting the Lebanese people against Hezbollah as usual" and invited journalists to visit the Jnah site. "We will allow media outlets to go into this site and see what's there," he said in his televised address, accusing Netanyahu of lying. "We don't store rockets at Beirut port, nor do we put them next to gas stations," he said.

Within an hour, an AFP photographer had joined dozens of journalists on a media tour of the site in south Beirut, where he saw heavy machinery inside a two-storey warehouse. He also saw large gas tanks that an employee told him were produced on site. "This is a normal industrial site," Hezbollah spokesman Mohammad Afif told journalists. "We reiterate that all the accusations that the enemy (Israel) repeatedly levels against us are nothing but false."

As the journalists toured the warehouse, Hezbollah supporters turned up, chanting their support for the group's leader and shouting: "We are your rockets!" The Israeli army, which has in the past said it had located three weapons factories in Beirut, said the new sites referred to by Netanyahu were not the same. The one in Laylaki was under a seven-storey apartment block and the other under a residential complex, it said late Tuesday.

Israel and Lebanon are technically in a state of war, and their common border, patrolled on the Lebanese side by a UN force, remains the scene of sporadic attacks. Hezbollah and Israel fought a devastating month-long war in 2006. Israel has also carried out dozens of air strikes on Hezbollah targets in neighbouring Syria where the group is fighting alongside the government of President Bashar al-Assad. - AFP