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Hezbollah chief threatens Israel at funeral

The chief of Hezbollah threatened Thursday to retaliate against Israeli targets after accusing the Jewish state of killing the militant Imad Mughniyeh in Syria.
Image: Hezbollah supporters march behind the coffin of Imad Mughniyeh.
Hezbollah supporters march behind the coffin of Imad Mughniyeh, left, during his funeral procession in south Beirut, Lebanon, on Thursday. Mughniyeh was the group's former security chief. The posters show other assassinated Hezbollah leaders.Mohammed Zaatari / AP
/ Source: news services

The chief of Hezbollah threatened Thursday to retaliate against Israeli targets after accusing the Jewish state of killing the militant Imad Mughniyeh in Syria.

Israel ordered its military, embassies and Jewish institutions overseas to go on alert Thursday, fearing revenge attacks for a car bomb that killed Mughniyeh.

Hassan Nasrallah addressed supporters of the Lebanese Islamic militant group in a videotaped eulogy broadcast on a giant screen at the Beirut funeral for Mughniyeh, who was accused of masterminding dramatic attacks that killed hundreds of Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s.

"You have killed Hajj Imad outside the natural battlefield," Nasrallah said in remarks directed at Israel. Hezbollah has long contended it only fights Israel within Lebanon and along their common border.

"You have crossed the borders," Nasrallah 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."

Throngs of Lebanese turned out Thursday for two opposing Beirut gatherings — Shiite Muslims supporters of Hezbollah to bid farewell to its slain top commander Imad Mughniyeh, and their pro-Western opponents at a downtown square to mark former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's 2005 assassination.

The two gatherings showcased Lebanon's divided soul but also increased fears of violence between the rival sides, prompting authorities to deploy thousands of troops and set up blockades on major roads.

Developments could define the course in the ongoing Lebanese political confrontation, whether the country slides further into chaos — and possibly civil war — or takes a step back from the brink.

Hezbollah urged crowds to its stronghold of south Beirut, to march behind the coffin of Imad Mughniyeh, the group's former security chief and one of world's most wanted fugitives, killed in a car bombing in Syria on Tuesday night.

Hezbollah has accused Israel of killing Moughniyah but the Israeli government denied any links.

'A martyr'
The group called on supporters to "carry on our shoulders a leader of whose leadership we were proud, and a martyr by whose martyrdom we're honored."

A Hezbollah statement aired on the group's Al-Manar TV said: "Let us make our voice heard by all the enemies and murderers that we will be victorious, no matter the sacrifices."

Thousands gathered in a hall in the Roueiss neighborhood of Beirut where Mughniyeh's coffin lay draped in a Hezbollah flag and saluted by a Hezbollah honor guard. A band played Lebanon's national anthem and the guerrilla anthem. Outside in the rain, thousands of others stood in silence.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who came to the funeral in Lebanon, offered condolences to the family and Mughniyeh's associates, before accepting condolences himself. Underlining Iran's close ties to Hezbollah, he sat between Mughniyeh's father, Fayez, and Hezbollah's deputy leader, Sheik Naim Kassem.

The Iranian top diplomat then read a statement of condolences from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"He's not the first martyr, nor will he be the last on this path," Mottaki read from the statement, as an interpreter translated into Arabic. "There will be hundreds and millions more" like him.

Muhniyeh's killing was "another shameful spot in the history of Zionism and their protectors in the world," but "these crimes will shorten the lifespan of those criminals," he said.

Hariri assassination
While the mood in south Beirut was somber, in the Lebanese capitals' main Martyrs' Square, tens of thousands commemorated the third anniversary of Hariri's assassination, braving the rain and the cold, waving Lebanese flags and carrying pictures of the slain Hariri and party banners.

There were no independent crowd estimates, but majority leader Saad Hariri, the late premier's son, greeted what he said was a crowd of 1.5 million. Some beat drums and cheered as speakers lashed out at the opposition.

Hariri launched a scathing attack against the Syrian government _ but spared Hezbollah and its opposition allies, apparently deferring to the funeral occasion. He even reached out to the opposition, saying: "Our hand will remain extended no matter what difficulties and conspiracies there are."

He also called for the election of a president in parliament, accusing Syria of obstructing it since November through its Lebanese allies. Hariri said the Syrian regime acts as an "Israeli product" but warned it "will not be able to take over Lebanon.

When Hariri alluded to Mughniyeh's funeral on the other side of town, the crowd booed. "He fell under the eyes of the Syrian regime," he said of the slain Hezbollah commander, adding sarcastically, "God knows better."

A sharp Hezbollah critic, Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, said the government will not succumb to opposition efforts to deliver Lebanon "to the Iranian-Syrian black evil world." Jumblatt accused Syria and the "treacherous regime" of its President Bashar Assad of killing Mughniyeh.

"It feels so good to be here, for the sake of Hariri and Lebanon," said Esmat Itani, a 50-year-old Muslim housewife.

Suleiman Abu Ezzedine, 35, holding an umbrella against the rain, said he left work to come to "remind that we are the majority. We want justice, truth and peace."

Mughniyeh's death
Mughniyeh's death from a bomb that blew up his SUV in Damascus could raise tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, as well as with the militants' allies, Syria and Iran. Israel and Hezbollah fought a bloody war in the summer of 2006, and some Lebanese figures close to the Shiite group called Wednesday for attacks against Israel in retaliation for Mughniyeh's death.

Israel's embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, was destroyed by a bombing in 1992 that killed 29 people, about a month after Israeli helicopter gunships rocketed a motorcade in southern Lebanon, killing Hezbollah leader Sheik Abbas Musawi, Nasrallah's predecessor. Mughniyeh was accused of engineering the Argentine attack.

In Israel, officials said security instructed embassies and Jewish institutions around the world to go on alert Thursday for fear of Hezbollah revenge attacks, and the army raised its awareness on its border with Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories.

The Hezbollah-linked newspaper As-Safir said Nasrallah had quickly appointed a replacement for Mughniyeh as head of the secretive "Jihadi Council," but did not identify the replacement.

Mughniyeh's slaying also could stir up more domestic turmoil in the deeply divided Lebanon, where the Hezbollah-led opposition is locked in a bitter power struggle with the Western-backed government.

'Falling into hatred'
Crowds also paid respects at Hariri's gravesite next to the downtown square as his brother, Shafik, unveiled a statue of the slain leader at the spot where he was killed, a few hundred meters (yards) away on a seaside boulevard. A flame was lit and a taped message broadcast from Hariri's widow, Nazek, who lives in Paris, urging against "falling into hatred" and calling on "unity to save the country."

The anti-Syrian parliamentary majority had hoped a massive show of popular support on the anniversary would force the Hezbollah-led opposition to compromise in a 15-month political stalemate that has paralyzed the country.

Hariri's supporters blame Syria for killing the prominent politician in a massive suicide truck bombing in Beirut three years ago and for a series of bombings and assassinations since. Hariri's assassination ignited mass protests and international pressure that forced Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon after 29 years of control.

Authorities deployed some 8,000 troops and policemen to protect the Hariri rally. Armored carriers took up positions on major intersections, and additional razor wire was brought in to separate the two sides on rain-drenched streets.

Amid fears of street violence, the U.S. Embassy encouraged American citizens in Lebanon to limit all but essential travel Thursday. Across Beirut, businesses and shops put off popular Valentine's Day celebrations for later in the week.

Mughniyeh was also on the FBI's list of most wanted terrorists, and the U.S. State Department had offered a US$5 million reward for information leading to his arrest or conviction. He was indicted in the U.S. for his role in planning the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner in which a U.S. Navy diver was killed.

He was also accused of carrying out or directing a series of spectacular attacks, including engineering the vicious suicide bombings of the U.S. Marines barracks and two embassy compounds in Beirut in 1983-84.

A total of about 260 Americans were killed in those attacks. Mughniyeh was also believed to be the mastermind behind the kidnappings of Americans and other Westerners in Beirut in the 1980s. Israel accused Mughniyeh of involvement in the 1992 and 1994 bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, attacks that killed more than 100 people.

He vanished in the early 1990s, reportedly undergoing plastic surgery and moving between Lebanon, Syria and Iran on fake passports.