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Last Updated: Friday, 22 September 2006, 21:39 GMT 22:39 UK
Nasrallah's public show of defiance
By Crispin Thorold
BBC News, Beirut

Hezbollah supporters wave flags
Supporters waved flags and shouted slogans

When Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah appeared in public after two months in hiding, it was to the rapturous chants of several hundred thousand of the party faithful.

The leader of Hezbollah had ignored repeated threats against his life by Israel, to proclaim his movement's "divine victory".

The Hezbollah supporters were crammed into a square in southern Beirut, next to an area that had been destroyed by Israel during the conflict.

The square was awash with the yellow and green of Hezbollah flags.

Enormous glossy propaganda posters the size of a house hung from the overlooking apartment blocks.

One had a photograph of Israeli soldiers carrying an injured comrade. The caption read: "It's Lebanon, you fools."

Another showed Hezbollah rockets being fired. That poster proclaimed: "Lebanon will never surrender."

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah
No-one can force the movement to disarm
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah

When he spoke, Sheikh Nasrallah was defiant. "We have made one of the strongest armies in the world look like rats," he said.

His speech was repeatedly interrupted by the chants of the faithful. "Nasrallah we are at your service," they shouted.

As they cheered the Hezbollah leader thanked the people for their steadfastness during the conflict.

He condemned Israel and the United States - but he also had a message for Arab regimes, urging them to remain united against their enemies, especially Israel.

Demands

Sheikh Nasrallah also reiterated his movement's refusal to give up its weapons until the government of Lebanon "can defend the country's borders".

"No-one can force the movement to disarm," he said.

He added that Hezbollah had more than 20,000 rockets. Before the war the movement claimed that it had more than 12,000.

Hundreds of thousands of Hezbollah supporters wave flags in Beirut
Hezbollah supporters crammed into a square in southern Beirut
There were also some indications of what Hezbollah wants from Israel in the long term - the disputed Sheba Farms region to be given to Lebanon and the release of Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails.

Both of those demands are considered but not resolved in UN Security Council resolution 1701, which led to a cessation of hostilities.

Dotted amongst the Hezbollah flags in the crowd were Lebanese flags, and the banners of some of the parties allied to Hezbollah.

They include the Shia grouping Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement led by Michel Aoun, a Christian.

Since the end of the conflict last month, Hezbollah and its allies have been calling for a new "government of national unity".

Although Hezbollah is part of the current government led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, the movement believes that a new administration, which reflects its popular support should now be formed.

This speech also increased the political pressure on the prime minister.

At one stage, Hassan Nasrallah accused Mr Siniora of weakness during the conflict.

He contrasted the prime minister's tears with Hezbollah's resistance to Israeli attacks.

Charisma

Political analysts say the fact that Hassan Nasrallah spoke in public at all is extremely significant - as was the duration of the speech.

Before the rally commentators in Lebanon had speculated that Hassan Nasrallah would only talk for 10 minutes.

Instead, he spoke for over an hour, which was a defiant act given Israel's threats over the past few months to kill him.

The leader of Hezbollah left the stage, as he had arrived, quickly and without ceremony.

He was shepherded away by some of the thousands of security guards who were on duty, and returned to a hiding place.

As the crowds dispersed Hezbollah's supporter's guns were fired again - not in aggression but into the air in victory.

Hezbollah and its charismatic leader appear to have emerged from this conflict and today's rally politically stronger.

In the coming months they will try to convert that popular support into political gain.


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Supporters celebrate the arrival of Nasrallah at rally



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