Hizbullah gunmen have been guarding valleys and hillsides north of the Litani River where a military build-up is taking shape, merely six months since the end of last summer's confrontation with Israel.
United Nations Resolution 1701, which ended the fighting, mandated a 12,000-strong international peacekeeping force to deploy south of the Litani River and stipulated that the Shiite group should have no visible presence there.
The Times reported that Christian and Druze-owned land is being purchased by a Shia businessman, a move Hizbullah's opponents believe is aimed at creating a Shia-populated belt south of the Litani where the group can operate safely.
“The state of Hizbullah is already in existence in south Lebanon,” the Druze leader and arch Hizbullah critic Walid Jumblatt told The Times.
“There have been no instances of attempts to smuggle weapons into the area,” said Milos Strugar, a senior adviser for the UN force in Lebanon, adding that no armed fighters had been seen since September, the Times said.
Buying landHizbullah’s plan is to prepare a new system of defenses, expanding old positions in the mountains on the northern bank of the Litani. Residents and peacekeepers agree that there has been increased activity by Hizbullah's fighters. “We can see them building new positions. There’s a lot of trucks coming into the area as well,” a UN officer said.
Times reporter Nicholas Blanford said that two armed Hizbullah fighters wearing camouflage uniforms and carrying walkie-talkies stopped him on his way to southern Lebanon and "politely but firmly" asked him for identification. They told him the area was off limits.
“We have evidence to support their presence there. It seems to be an expansion of what was there before the war,” the Times quoted a western diplomat as saying.
Ali Tajiddine, a Shia businessman who traded in diamonds in West Africa, has been buying swaths of land from Christians and Druze, the Times said. His interest in the remote mountainous corner of Lebanon has been alarming to Jumblatt.
Two thirds of Druze village in the area were bought by Tajiddine, who is also building a new community called Ahmadiyeh.
Jumblatt fears that Iranian funds are being used to buy land that will become a Hizbullah military zone.
Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hizbullah’s deputy leader, told The Times that Mr Jumblatt’s allegations were unfounded.
He said that the Druze leader “likes to stir calm waters," the Times said.
Mr Tajiddine also denied the claims, telling the Times that he was buying land in the area because it was rich in quarrying opportunities.