(To correct that first vessel had already sailed)
BEIRUT (Reuters) – The leader of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, Hassan Nasrallah, said on Sunday that vessels carrying Iranian fuel will be setting sail soon followed by others to ease fuel shortages in Lebanon.
Nasrallah insisted that the group was not trying to step in and replace the state by purchasing the fuel. The first vessel which last Thursday the group announced was about to leave Iran, had already sailed, he said.
“We are not taking the place of the state, nor are we an alternative to companies that import fuel,” he said in a speech to supporters without elaborating on how the shipments would enter the country.
Hezbollah’s foes in Lebanon have warned of dire consequences from the move, saying it risked sanctions being imposed on a country whose economy has been in meltdown for nearly two years.
The arrival of the Iranian fuel would mark a new phase in the financial crisis, which the Lebanese state and its ruling factions – including Hezbollah – have failed to tackle even as fuel has run dry and shortages have prompted deadly violence.
The U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Dorothy Shea, said on Thursday that Lebanon didn’t need Iranian tankers, citing “a whole bunch” of fuel ships off the coast waiting to unload.
The United States was in talks with Egypt and Jordan to help find solutions to Lebanon’s fuel and energy needs, she said, speaking hours after Hezbollah said it was arranging the shipments.
(This story was corrected to say that first vessel had already sailed)
(Reporting by Laila Bassam, Writing by Suleiman al Khalidi; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Hugh Lawson)