A commenter on my last post asks the following question, which many others have been asking today in the wake of two pieces written by Nicholas Blanford and Mitchell Prothero about Hizbullah’s alleged participation in the Lebanese Army’s confrontation with Shaykh Ahmad al-Assir’s supporters in Saida:
“I can’t believe the claim Hizballah was involved. TV crews from half a dozen stations were down on the scene reporting minute by minute. This includes Future TV, MTV, and LBCI, not particular fans of the hizb. And only Prothero and Blanford saw the fighters? I call bullshit. They are either helplessly befuddled journalists out of their depth or simply fabricating news.”
I asked Mr. Blanford and Mr. Prothero if they’d like to respond to the question of how they were able to get this story when no one else reported on the presence of Hizbullah fighters. They sent me the following statement, which I publish with their permission.
On Sunday night in preparation for Monday’s reporting in Sidon, Nick figured as a back-up plan approaching Abra from the east if it was too difficult to get to Abra from the west – the city – side. After tooling around for a bit in central Sidon Monday morning, it seemed the eastern approach was the one to go for. Bit of a schlep, but Nick knows the roads through Joun across the Bisri river and then hitting the Jezzine-Sidon road near Anan, then back through Kfar Falous toward Sidon. It took a little under an hour.
When we reached the western end of Majdalyoun and the bangs were getting loud, we parked up and continued on foot. We weren’t expecting to see any Hezb fighters, just wanted to get closer to the action. But after a couple of hundred meters as we entered the outskirts of Abra, some guy yelled at us to get off the road. He was hanging out with about seven or eight other guys all dressed in paramilitary clothing, some with yellow ribbons and very obviously Hezbollah. They were paranoid about our cameras and didn’t know what to do with us at first. But the sniping had picked up and so they said we could stay.
They were friendly for the most part and polite and grew accustomed to having us around. After an hour or so, we were driven down the road in one of their vehicles so the local commander – Haj – could check us out. After they saw nothing incriminating on our cameras, Haj relaxed and was remarkably open to us. He had no problem with us seeing what was going on and even agreed that we could use a couple of his comments albeit off the record. Neither of us have never seen so many Hezb fighters in one place at one time gearing up for action – they looked like a mix of saraya, regulars and special forces and probably all locals. Quite extraordinary sight. Once Haj had given us his blessing, all we got from the other fighters were brief curious glances and that was it. They didn’t bother us. Some of them were happy to chat to us or openly chat to themselves in front of us.
We stayed longer than intended because sniper fire had cut us off from Nick’s car. After a while Haj arranged for a fighter to drive Nick to his car. He took him to the junction at the top of the road, then said “where’s your car?” Nick said, about 300 metres up the hill. “300 meters? I’m not going up there,” he says. So Nick said “if you’re not going up there, I’m bloody well not going up there.” So we stayed another hour with the guys until the sniper had been dealt with.
Our location was clearly the assembly point as there is a direct road to Haret Saida nearby which is Shia populated. The fighters piling into Grand Cherokees were heading up to the mosque area which was about 700 meters to the west. One of more talkative guys said he had just returned from the mosque complex. Don’t know if there were Hezb units elsewhere on the eastern side, but doubt it. There’s no way they would come through the western side of town to reach Abra so anyone reporting from the city itself – i.e. the opposite side of Abra from us – would not have seen them. We didn’t see any other journalists on the eastern side of town, but there were plenty of civilians who were driving through the area and saw the Hezb guys.