BEIRUT, Nov 5 (Reuters) Lebanon's Hezbollah has conducted maneuvres in south Lebanon in a rare show of force designed to deter Israel from repeating its 2006 invasion of the south, security and political sources said.
Two pro-Hezbollah newspapers reported today that the Shi'ite Muslim group, which fought a 34-day war with Israel last year, staged one of its biggest maneuvres over the weekend under the direct supervision of its leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
Security sources confirmed the maneuvres took place but not on the scale reported by the newspapers.
They said the exercises demonstrated that Hezbollah has relaxed a long-held policy of military secrecy, allowing Israel to know more about its capabilities in a new deterrence strategy.
While the dailies said the exercises involved thousands of unarmed guerrillas in the area of operations of U.N.
peacekeepers near the border with Israel, the Lebanese government said they were merely ''simulations on paper''.
Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, did not comment on the report but its al-Manar television gave it credibility by leading news broadcasts quoting the newspapers.
A political source close to the group said regardless of how serious the maneuvres actually were, their leak to the media was part of a change of strategy by Hezbollah.
''During its review of last year's war, its reasons and conduct, Hezbollah reached the conclusion that it was a mistake to build up its capabilities in total secrecy,'' the source, who requested to remain anonymous, said.
''The Israelis didn't know the strength of Hezbollah and rushed to war, making the major miscalculation that they could crush the group in a few days,'' he said.
FRIENDS AND ENEMIES Israel launched the war after the capture of two of its soldiers in a cross-border attack. Nasrallah said shortly after the war that he would not have ordered the attack had he known the Israeli retaliation would be so fierce.
The conflict claimed the lives of some 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 160 in Israel, mostly soldiers.
The source noted Nasrallah had since the war made several uncharacteristic statements about his group's military strength, from saying Hezbollah has more than 30,000 rockets, some capable of hitting any part of Israel, to pledging a ''great surprise'' that would alter the balance of any future conflict.
''All this talk is aimed at deterring Israel from attacking Lebanon again. Hezbollah are not looking for a fight by sending these messages, they want to avoid one,'' the source said.
Al Akhbar daily said all of Hezbollah's military, security and logistics units took part in the maneuvres south of the Litani River from Friday to Sunday.
The area is patrolled by some 11,500 UNIFIL peacekeepers and 15,000 Lebanese troops.
''The resistance leadership was forced to take a different decision, unprecedented in Hezbollah history,'' Al Akhbar said.
As Safir newspaper said the move came after Israeli maneuvres near the northern border with Lebanon and intensified Israeli flights over the south and Beirut.
Nasrallah congratulated the thousands of Hezbollah fighters who took part in the exercise, Al Akhbar reported.
''I hope that the enemy and the friend will realise that the resistance is totally ready to confront all kinds of Israeli threats,'' he was quoted as saying.
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora played down the reports, saying the exercises took place on paper only.
''What happened is nothing but an internal simulation exercise that was never translated on the ground,'' he told reporters.
REUTERS NC RK2128