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

Updated:
BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah told supporters Friday that his guerrillas will not surrender their weapons until a stronger Lebanese government is in place _ including 20,000 rockets his group claims to still have after its 34-day war with Israel.

In his first public appearance since Israel launched its massive offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas on July 12, Nasrallah repeatedly attacked the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, which he called weak and unable to protect Lebanon from Israel.

Speaking to hundreds of thousands of flag-waving supporters in bombed-out southern Beirut, he said giving up Hezbollah's weapons now ``under this government ... means leaving Lebanon exposed before Israel to kill and detain and bomb whoever they want, and clearly we will not accept that.''

``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,'' the black-turbaned cleric said.

``Tears don't protect anyone,'' he said in a jab at Saniora, who wept several times in speeches during the Israeli offensive as he described the destruction and pleaded for international support.

Nasrallah also vowed not to allow U.N. peacekeepers and Lebanese troops to disarm Hezbollah militants in the south.

``No army in the world will be able to make us drop the weapons from our hands,'' he said.

Israel lashed back after the speech, saying Nasrallah was issuing a challenge to the Lebanese government and the international community.

``The international community can't afford to have this Iranian-funded extremist spit in the face of the organized community of nations,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

In response to Nasrallah's claim to still have more than 20,000 rockets, Regev said that according to the U.N.-backed cease-fire, Hezbollah ``shouldn't have any rockets.''

Security was tightened in advance of Nasrallah's speech. Israel had threatened to kill Nasrallah during its offensive, and Israeli leaders have refused to say whether he remains a target for assassination.

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.

Nasrallah thanked God during his speech 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's speech _ and the massive rally itself _ aimed to show Hezbollah's continued power despite the dramatically new situation in Lebanon: A beefed-up U.N. peacekeeping force and Lebanese troops are fanning out in the south, Hezbollah's longtime stronghold, with a mandate to keep the guerrillas under control.

Much of his speech was directed at Saniora's government, which includes Hezbollah members and strong opponents of the guerrilla group who want to see it disarmed. Nasrallah called for a new national unity government.

Former President Amin Gemayel, a sharp critic of Hezbollah, said parts of Nasrallah's speech were ``dangerous.''

``He is linking giving up Hezbollah's weapons to regime change in Lebanon and ... to drastic changes on the level of the Lebanese government,'' Gemayel said. ``This is very surprising and dangerous, and leads us to ask, what kind of government does Sayyed Hassan want for what kind of Lebanon?''

He said Nasrallah on the one hand ``extended his hand'' to various Lebanese parties but on the other hand was ``confrontational and made some very serious statements.''

Faris Soueid, a Christian politician close to Saniora, insisted the government will not bend to Hezbollah pressure. ``I believe it will not scare the government of Fuad Saniora,'' he said on Al-Arabiya television. ``It will not fall, not in the street and not because of political speeches.''

The U.N.-brokered cease-fire that ended fighting between the guerrillas and Israel calls for Hezbollah to eventually be stripped of its weapons, but Nasrallah has so far been defiant.

Some 5,000 U.N. peacekeepers and 10,000 Lebanese troops have deployed in southern Lebanon, with a mandate to enforce a weapons-free zone on the Israeli border. They have said they will confiscate any Hezbollah weapons they encounter and will prevent new arms from reaching the guerrillas.

But they will not actively seek out and take hidden weapons, leaving the question of Hezbollah's disarmament to a political decision by the government.

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, 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.
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