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The Associated Press July 14, 2006

Hezbollah `air power' first flew in 2004

Hezbollah's remote-controlled attack on a warship Friday marked a first in the militant group's use of "air power" against its powerful enemy, the technologically advanced Israeli military.

The Lebanese militia had launched similar unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, against Israel at least twice before, in November 2004 and April 2005, when they crossed over Israel's northern border on apparent reconnaissance flights, lasting just minutes before they returned to Lebanese territory.

On Friday, however, a Hezbollah drone loaded with explosives slammed into an Israeli navy vessel off Lebanon, causing severe damage and leaving it burning as it turned and cruised homeward, Israeli officials reported. The Arab television channel al-Jazeera said four sailors were missing after the attack.

After Hezbollah's first use of a drone in 2004, its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, warned that the pilotless aircraft were capable of carrying explosives and striking deep into Israel. On Friday, Nasrallah went on the air again, telling listeners the damaged ship could be seen off Beirut. "Look at it burning," he said.

Israel claimed in 2004 that the drone, dubbed by Hezbollah the "Mirsad 1," or "observation post" in Arabic, was Iranian-made. On Friday, however, Israeli officials suggested it had been developed by the Lebanese Shiite Muslim group, as Hezbollah itself has claimed in the past.

Defense analyst John Pike of the Washington-based firm GlobalSecurity.org doubted that claim.

"I think Hezbollah has people capable of rigging explosives to a drone, but I don't think they could develop a UAV on their own," he said. Global Security's website notes that a leading Arab newspaper, London-based Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat, once reported that Iran sold eight Mohajer-4 drones to Hezbollah.

Iran fields several types of UAVs, including one, called the Ababil, with a 9-foot-long body, capable of flying for 90 minutes, and able to carry a 90-pound payload. Nasrallah was quoted in 2004 as saying Hezbollah's drones could carry 40 kilograms — 90 pounds — of explosives.

The drone's TV camera makes it relatively easy to mount such an attack, Pike said.

"It's not bigtime rocket science to put explosives on the thing and then use the TV camera to home in on the ship," he said.


Copyright 2006, The Associated Press