updated 9/21/2006 10:51:10 PM ET 2006-09-22T02:51:10

Hundreds of Hezbollah supporters from across southern Lebanon began marching toward Beirut on Thursday for a rally to showcase the group's insistence it won't disarm.

The defiant stance comes as U.N. peacekeepers and Lebanese troops fan out to shore up the cease-fire between the militant group and Israel, and is a worrying signal for the weak central government.

Friday's rally in the bombed-out southern suburbs of Beirut could attract hundreds of thousands, Hezbollah said. But the group kept people guessing if its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, would attend.

During Israel's 34-day offensive, it threatened to kill Nasrallah. An attempt to assassinate him now was considered unlikely since it would risk plunging the region back into conflict. However, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would not say in comments published Thursday whether Nasrallah remained a target.

"There is no reason for me to notify Nasrallah through the media how we will act. We will not give him advance notice. He is holding a victory march because he has lost," Olmert told the Israeli newspaper Maariv.

Nasrallah went into hiding July 12, the start of the war with Israel, and has not been seen publicly since, though he has given interviews.

‘Divine and historic victory’
The monthlong Israeli offensive, triggered by Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, failed to destroy the guerrilla force. Nasrallah said Friday's rally would celebrate the "divine and historic victory" over Israel.

Nicolas Nassif, a political analyst at Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is close to Hezbollah, wrote Thursday that Nasrallah was expected to speak and issue important messages, including that the group would not disarm.

The gathering is intended as a show of strength by Hezbollah at a time of increased friction with the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.

The U.N.-brokered cease-fire calls for the guerrilla group to eventually be stripped of its weapons. Lebanese troops, backed by U.N. peacekeepers, are deploying in Hezbollah's stronghold in the south to ensure its fighters at least do not display their weapons.

Butros Harb, a lawmaker who supports Saniora's government, said Hezbollah's refusal to disarm was unacceptable and expressed concern about the rally.

‘Illegal army’
"We can't have an illegal army at the heart of our state, all weapons must be held by the Lebanese government," he said.

Early Thursday, hundreds of people began marching toward Beirut from villages and towns in the south, which at its farthest point on the Israeli border lies about 90 miles from Beirut.

About 200 marchers stopped for the night in the port city of Sidon, where they were welcomed by the mayor. Waving pro-Hezbollah banners and wearing the group's yellow T-shirts, they shouted, "Death to America, death to Israel."

Hezbollah said buses would be available to transport people from the south to Beirut.

At the rally site in south Beirut, workers set up tens of thousands of white plastic chairs facing a podium and organizers prepared tens of thousands of banners and flags. Past Hezbollah rallies have drawn up to 800,000 people.

Hezbollah, whose popularity among Shiites soared after it withstood weeks of punishing Israeli bombardment and kept up a barrage of rockets into northern Israel, has refused to give up its weapons.

In a television interview last week, Nasrallah boasted that his armed fighters were still on the border with Israel.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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