Hezbollah leader refuses to disarm in first public appearance since war with Israel


BEIRUT, Lebanon Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah told hundreds of thousands of supporters today that his guerrillas will never surrender their weapons including 20,000 rockets he claims his group has left after its 34-day war with Israel.

No army in the world will be able to make us drop the weapons from our hands, the black-turbaned cleric said defiantly in his first public appearance since the start of the war in July.

But Nasrallah said he would consider disarming his group once the Lebanese government is strong enough to protect the country.

When we build a strong and just state that is capable of protecting the nation and the citizens, we will easily find an honorable solution to the resistance issue and its weapons, he told the flag-waving crowd gathered in Beirut s bombed-out southern suburbs.

The militant leader thanked God for what he called a divine, historic and strategic victory over the Jewish state and said his group would not release two captured Israeli soldiers except in an exchange for Lebanese prisoners.

Hezbollah guerrillas took the two soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12, which prompted 34 days of Israeli airstrikes in Lebanon.

Nasrallah said he decided to appear at the rally despite threats to his life.

They said that this square would be bombed and this stage would be destroyed to frighten the people and keep them away.

He said he debated with his aides about whether to attend until 30 minutes before the rally. But my heart, mind and soul did not allow me to address you from afar, he said.

You are proving by attending this victory celebration that you are more courageous than on July 12 and Aug. 14, he said, referring to the beginning and end of his group s war with Israel.

Security was tightened in advance of Nasrallah s arrival. Although Israel had threatened to kill Nasrallah during its offensive, an attempt to assassinate him now was considered unlikely since it would risk plunging the region back into conflict.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would not say in comments published Thursday whether Nasrallah remained a target. There is no reason for me to notify Nasrallah through the media how we will act. We will not give him advance notice.

He is holding a victory march because he has lost, Olmert told the Israeli newspaper Maariv.

The rally was held at a barren 37-acre lot about a mile from the guerrilla group s flattened headquarters. Thousands had arrived at the site from the south by foot, in buses and in cars, chanting Nasrallah s name and waving Lebanese and Hezbollah flags. Members of Christian parties and pro-Syrian groups in northern Lebanon also traveled to the capital to participate.

One Shiite woman, Mira Ali, said she came in response to Nasrallah s religious order. The 42-year-old, wearing a black shirt and pants, waved a Hezbollah flag and said: We are with him. I am here to say no to disarming Hezbollah.

Nasrallah s appearance was seen as a show of Hezbollah s strength at a time of increased friction with the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. Hezbollah s popularity among Shiites soared after it withstood weeks of punishing Israeli bombardment and kept firing rockets into northern Israel.

Although the group has refused to give up its weapons following the cease-fire, it has come under renewed criticism from anti-Syrian factions who form a majority in Lebanon s government and accuse Hezbollah of doing Damascus and Tehran s bidding.

The guerrillas have long kept a low profile. They rarely carry weapons in public and have sought to calm the fears of other religious communities in Lebanon by insisting that their arms are to fight Israel and won t be turned against their fellow Lebanese.

But many Christian and Druse minorities, as well as the large Sunni Muslim community, are unconvinced and have called for the state and its military to be the only armed force in Lebanon.

As Hezbollah celebrated, Israeli soldiers continued to withdraw Friday from an area south of the coastal town of Naqoura and near Maiss al-Jabal in the northern Galilee panhandle, said a statement by the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL.

The statement said Indian and Ghanaian peacekeepers would set up checkpoints and conduct patrols in order to confirm the Israeli withdrawal and coordinate the deployment of Lebanese army units to the area on Saturday.

UNIFIL s commander, French Maj. Gen. Alain Pellegrini, said he expected the rest of the Israeli troops to vacate southern Lebanon by the end of the month. We are almost there, he said.

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