- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2006

BEIRUT — Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah told supporters today that his guerrillas will not surrender their weapons until a stronger Lebanese government is in place — including 20,000 rockets his group claims still to 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 Siniora, 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.”

Sheik 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.

“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 Mr. Siniora, who wept several times in speeches during the Israeli offensive as he described the destruction and pleaded for international support.

Israel lashed back after the speech, saying Sheik 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 Sheik Nasrallah’s claim still to have more than 20,000 rockets, Mr. Regev said that according to the U.N.-backed cease-fire, Hezbollah “shouldn’t have any rockets.”

Security was tightened in advance of Sheik Nasrallah’s speech. Israel had threatened to kill him 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 Sheik 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.

Sheik 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 air strikes in Lebanon.

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