BEIRUT (AFP) — Lebanon's Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said his militant group had the body parts of Israeli soldiers abandoned on the battlefield as he appeared in public on Saturday for the first time in more than a year.
"We have the heads, the hands, the feet and even a nearly intact cadaver from the head down to the pelvis," he said in a live video broadcast that followed his surprise appearance in his stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut to commemorate Ashura, Shiite Islam's holiest day.
"What did the Israeli army say to the family of this soldier and what remains did they give them?" he asked.
Speaking about his group's war with the Jewish state in 2006, he claimed Hezbollah had forced Israel to beat a quick retreat and warned that his group stood ready for a new conflict.
"If Israel launches a new war against Lebanon, we promise them a war that will change the face of the entire region," he said.
Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers in July 2006 led to the 34-day war that killed more than 1,200 civilians in Lebanon, a third of them children, as well as 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.
The Jewish state failed in both its stated aims for launching the war: to stop rocket fire on northern Israel and to recover the two soldiers.
In October, Israel handed over the bodies of two Hezbollah militants and a prisoner in exchange for the remains of a drowned Israeli civilian, who was washed up on the Lebanese coast, and information on a missing airman.
Nasrallah in his speech to tens of thousands of supporters slammed US President George W. Bush's Middle East tour that ended on Wednesday and his bid to convince Arab leaders that Iran posed a threat with its nuclear programme.
"Bush wants to convince our rulers and people that Iran is the enemy, that Iran poses a danger and a threat, and that Israel is a brother," the black-turbaned Nasrallah told the crowd.
He urged Arab states to address Bush's "Satanic visions" in the Middle East and to remain committed to the armed resistance.
Surrounded by dozens of bodyguards, Nasrallah earlier walked through the Shiite suburbs before being whisked away to deliver his speech.
The crowd of men, women and children carrying yellow Hezbollah flags cheered him on as he walked by and chanted "God, protect Nasrallah," and "Death to America, Death to Israel".
They beat their chests and backs in a ritual commemorating the killing of Imam Hussein by armies of the Sunni caliph Yazid in 680.
Hezbollah's Al-Manar television station said one million people had turned out for the event.
Nasrallah has been Israel's public enemy number one since his Iranian- and Syrian-backed Shiite militant group fought a deadly month-long war against the Jewish state in the summer of 2006.
His last public appearance was at a massive "victory" rally in the southern suburbs in September 2006 in the wake of the war against Israel during which he went into hiding.
Saturday's procession marked the climax of 10 days of ceremonies for Ashura, which commemorates Imam Hussein's death at the hands of armies of the Sunni caliph Yazid in 680.
Despite cold temperatures, young men walked barefoot in a sign of humility and tribute for their revered imam.
Nasrallah's appearance came amid high tension in Lebanon which has been without a president for nearly two months because of a long-running crisis between the Western-backed majority and the Hezbollah-led opposition.
Although both sides agree on the candidacy of the army chief, General Michel Sleiman, they are at loggerheads over the make-up of the future government.
Nasrallah in his speech criticised Arab leaders who have been pushing an Arab League plan to end the crisis, saying they should refrain from giving lessons about democracy.
"I find it strange that Arab leaders speak about ... democracy when their own regimes know nothing about it," he said, while reiterating that his group supported the Arab League plan.
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