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Lebanese Christian leads rally, dismisses Hezbollah 'victory'

Monday, September 25, 2006

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- An anti-Syrian Christian leader dismissed Hezbollah's claims of victory in its war with Israel as tens of thousands of his supporters rallied Sunday in a show of strength that highlighted Lebanon's sharp divisions.

The rally north of Beirut came just two days after a massive gathering by the rival Shiite Muslim Hezbollah that attracted hundreds of thousands. The two sides have been at sharp odds over the future of the Lebanese government since this summer's Israeli-Hezbollah war.

Samir Geagea, a notorious former leader of a Christian militia, scoffed at Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah's declaration that his guerrillas achieved "a victory" against Israel.

"I don't feel victory because the majority of the Lebanese people do not feel victory. Rather, they feel that a major catastrophe had befallen them and made their present and future uncertain," he said.

Hezbollah's fight with Israel sent its support soaring among Shiites. But a large sector -- particularly among Christians and Sunni Muslims -- opposes Hezbollah and resents it for provoking the monthlong fight by capturing two Israeli soldiers on July 12.

The war killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians and left part of the country's infrastructure in ruins, causing billions of dollars in damage to the economy.

Geagea, who served more than a decade in prison on multiple counts of murder dating to the 1975-90 civil war, backs the Western-leaning government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. His party is a member of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority in Lebanon.

Geagea's supporters, waving his pictures and the white, red and green flag of his Lebanese Forces Party, arrived in buses and cars at the shrine of the Virgin Mary in the town of Harissa, about 15 miles north of Beirut.

Addressing his supporters after a mass to commemorate Christian militiamen killed in the civil war, Geagea rejected Nasrallah's vow to keep his weapons, saying the guerrilla group was blocking the establishment of "a strong and capable (Lebanese) state" for which Nasrallah was calling.

"When we find a solution to (the issue of Hezbollah's) weapons, then it will be possible to establish the state as it should be," he said.

Geagea, who backs Hezbollah's disarmament, implicitly accused the Iranian- and Syrian-backed group of running "a state within a state" in south Lebanon.

"How can a state be established while there is a mini-state (within its borders)? How can this state be established while every day arms and ammunitions are smuggled (to Hezbollah) under its (the state's) nose?" he said.

Nasrallah vowed at a massive rally Friday in Beirut's southern suburbs not to disarm despite international pressure. Some 800,000 Hezbollah supporters cheered Nasrallah at the gathering to celebrate what Hezbollah called "a divine victory" against Israel in the 34-day war that ended on Aug. 14.

In his speech, Nasrallah also called for the formation of a new government, repeatedly attacking Saniora's administration, which he called weak and unable to protect Lebanon from Israel.

Hezbollah's push for a stronger political role could deepen tensions in a country already sharply divided over the war.

Geagea rejected Nasrallah's call for a new government, defending Saniora's administration. Despite "some loopholes and defects," it is for the first time "a Lebanese, sovereign and independent one," he said.

Syria dominated Lebanon for nearly three decades before it withdrew its troops last year under heavy international pressure following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Syria is accused of involvement in Hariri's death, which it denies.

Geagea was arrested in April 1994 and his group was banned after a church bombing killed 10 people. He was later acquitted in the bombing but sentenced to three life terms on several other murder counts, including the killing of pro-Syrian Prime Minister Rashid Karami.

Geagea served 11 years in prison before he was released in July 2005, when Lebanon's parliament approved a motion to pardon him.

He was leader of the Lebanese Forces -- the country's most powerful Christian militia during the Lebanese civil war. Israel backed the militia during that conflict and the Israeli invasion in 1982 to expel Palestinian guerrillas.


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