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Hezbollah Scores in South Lebanon

Its pro-Syria slate claims to have won all 23 of the region's parliamentary seats. The victory may bolster militant group's refusal to disarm.

June 06, 2005|From Times Wire Services

HOULA, Lebanon — Hezbollah and another pro-Syria Shiite group scored a major victory in general elections in south Lebanon on Sunday, an outcome likely to bolster the militant group's efforts to retain its weapons amid international calls for disarmament.

Official results were not due until today, but the Hezbollah-Amal slate, dubbed the "steamroller," claimed it had taken all 23 seats up for grabs in the south. Unofficial counts indicated the alliance had won more than 80% of the vote.

"I thank all my people in the great south for renewing their confidence in the list and for the victory of all its candidates," Amal leader and parliament Speaker Nabih Berri told a news conference.

Many in the Shiite Muslim heartland see a vote for Hezbollah as a vote for the group to retain its arms as a defense against neighboring Israel, which occupied the south for 22 years until pulling out in 2000.

"The aim is to defend Lebanon, not the weapons of the resistance. But to defend Lebanon we must defend the weapons," Sheik Naim Kassem, deputy head of Hezbollah, told reporters.

"Today, southerners said this and the international community must listen."

Hundreds of supporters waving Amal flags celebrated outside Berri's villa. Others drove through villages and towns, honking their horns and flying the two parties' yellow and green flags.

Fireworks exploded above central Beirut as the celebrations spilled over to the capital.

Hezbollah, which Washington labels a terrorist group, and the more moderate Amal are the dominant forces among Shiites in Lebanon. Hezbollah is fielding 14 candidates across Lebanon, hoping to build on its presence in the 128-member legislature. It has won an additional seat in Beirut.

Lebanon's first general elections since Syrian troops pulled out of the country this spring after years of occupation are being held region by region over four weekends until June 19.

In polls May 29 in Beirut, anti-Syria opposition candidates took most of the capital's 19 parliamentary seats.

Damascus backed both Amal and Hezbollah during and after the 1975-1990 civil war, and Shiites largely stayed away from anti-Syria street protests that swept Beirut after the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Those protests, which united Christians, Sunni Muslims and Druze, forced Syria to bow to world pressure and end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon in April.

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