Middle East

Hezbollah leader Nasrallah makes rare public appearance

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Media captionHezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah addresses the crowd

The leader of the Lebanese Shia Islamist group, Hezbollah, has made his first public appearance for several years at a rally in Beirut.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah normally speaks to his supporters via video-link, but on Tuesday he addressed a crowd marking the religious festival of Ashura.

He said his group was stronger than ever and would never give up its arms.

His comments came amid speculation that Hezbollah would be weakened if the Syrian government was overthrown.

Assassination risk

Sheikh Nasrallah has rarely been seen in public since Hezbollah's 34-day war with Israel in 2006, which left more than 1,200 Lebanese dead, most of them civilians. Some 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were also killed.

But on Tuesday, the hundreds of thousands of Hezbollah supporters gathered in the capital's southern suburb of Dahiya reacted with delight when he suddenly walked through the crowd, surrounded by bodyguards.

After climbing onto a stage, the Hezbollah leader said his appearance was a message to those who believed they could "threaten us".

"I wanted to be with you for few minutes... to renew our pledge and for the world to hear us," he added.

The crowd chanted, "Death to Israel" in response.

After only a few minutes, Sheikh Nasrallah told his supporters that he would soon reappear on a giant screen and was hustled away by his bodyguards.

The BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut says Hezbollah knows that the Israeli authorities would love to assassinate Sheikh Nasrallah, as they did his predecessor, so his public exposure is kept to a very tight minimum.

In the speech, our correspondent adds, he delivered what he said was a clear message to those who thought that change in the Arab world - and he was clearly referring to neighbouring Syria - would mean Hezbollah's demise.

"A message to all those who are conspiring against the resistance and banking on change... We will never let go of our arms," he vowed.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Hezbollah supporters were thrilled and excited when Hassan Nasrallah suddenly appeared

"We are tens of thousands of trained fighters, who are all ready to die," he added. "Day after day, the resistance gains more fighters, trains better fighters and arms even more heavily. Every weapon that rusts is replaced."

The Hezbollah leader also lashed out at the opposition Syrian National Council, whose leader, Burhan Ghalioun, has said that a new Syria government would cut its special relationship with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

He accused the Syrian opposition of trying to curry favour with the United States and Israel, and of allowing itself to be used.

"We support the reforms in Syria and we stand with the regime against the resistance movement," he said.

"There are some people who do not want reforms, security and stability in Syria, and neither civil peace nor dialogue. There are people who want to destroy Syria to make up for their defeat in Iraq. Syria is a partner in defeating the Americans in Iraq."

The day of Ashura is marked by Muslims as a whole, but for Shia Muslims it is a major religious festival which commemorates the martyrdom at Karbala of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

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