Friday, February 15, 2008

BEIRUT (AP) — The chief of Hezbollah told throngs of supporters at a funeral for slain commander Imad Mughniyeh that his group would retaliate against Israeli targets anywhere in the world, after accusing the Jewish state of killing the militant.

Israel ordered its military, embassies and Jewish institutions overseas to go on alert earlier in the day, fearing revenge attacks for the car bomb that killed Mughniyeh on Tuesday night in the Syrian capital, Damascus. The former Hezbollah security chief was one of world’s most wanted fugitives, accused of masterminding attacks that killed hundreds of Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s.

While Hezbollah supporters bid farewell to Mughniyeh, tens of thousands of their pro-Western political opponents filled a downtown Beirut square to mark former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s 2005 assassination. The opposing gatherings reflected Lebanon’s divided soul, and fearing clashes, authorities deployed thousands of troops. But by evening, there were no reports of violence.

Hezbollah and its Iranian backers blamed Israel for killing Mughniyeh, but Israel denied involvement.

In a fiery, videotaped eulogy broadcast on a giant screen to tens of thousands attending the south Beirut funeral, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said Israel had taken the fight outside the natural battlefield of Israel and Lebanon.

You have crossed the borders, he said. With this murder, its timing, location and method — Zionists, if you want this kind of open war, let the whole world listen: Let this war be open.

Thousands gathered in a hall in the Roueiss neighborhood of Beirut, where Mughniyeh’s coffin lay draped in a Hezbollah flag. A band played Lebanon’s national anthem and the guerrilla group’s anthem. Outside in the rain, tens of thousands more stood in silence.

Sheik Nasrallah — himself in hiding because of fears of assassination since the 2006 summer war with Israel — warned Israel that the killing of Mughniyeh was a very big folly that will be avenged.

Mughniyeh’s blood will lead to the elimination of Israel. These words are not an emotional reaction, he said, drawing roars from the crowd, which raised fists into the air.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said such threats are alarming.

As a general matter, those kinds of statements are quite concerning, and they should be alarming to everyone, he said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who came to the funeral in Lebanon, offered condolences to the family and Mughniyeh’s associates. Underlining Iran’s close ties to Hezbollah, he sat between Mughniyeh’s father and Hezbollah’s deputy leader.

He’s not the first martyr, nor will he be the last on this path, Mr. Mottaki said, reading a statement of condolences from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with an interpreter translating into Arabic. There will be hundreds and millions more like him.

As the funeral proceeded in south Beirut, across the city tens of thousands gathered in the main Martyrs’ Square to commemorate the third anniversary of the Hariri assassination.

Saad Hariri, leader of the parliamentary majority and the late prime minister’s son, launched a scathing attack against the Syrian government. But he spared Hezbollah and its opposition allies, apparently in deference to the funeral. He even reached out to the opposition, saying: Our hand will remain extended, no matter what difficulties and conspiracies there are.

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