Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah appears on television April 30 in Beirut… (Al Manar TV )
BEIRUT -- The head of the powerful Hezbollah movement vowed Tuesday that the Lebanese group and other allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad would not allow the government in Damascus to be overthrown.
“Syria has real friends, in the region and the world, that will not let it fall into the hands of America, Israel and Takfiri groups,” Hassan Nasrallah, general-secretary of the Shiite Muslim organization, said in a televised address.
The reference to Takfiris was an allusion to Al Qaeda and other Sunni Muslim extremists who denounce Shiites as apostates and view Hezbollah as a mortal enemy. Nasrallah has repeatedly charged that such extremists are prominent in the Sunni-led Syrian rebel forces seeking to oust Assad.
The Syrian opposition has accused Hezbollah of fighting alongside Assad’s troops and has denied that rebel fighters target Shiites because of their sect.
Hezbollah, a dominant military and political bloc in Lebanon, has long been a close ally of Assad and of Shiite Iran, a major international backer of the Assad government.
The Hezbollah leader’s latest comments come as the group’s role in aiding Assad’s regime against a more than two-year revolt is receiving ever-greater public scrutiny and drawing forceful criticism from the Syrian opposition. One prominent Syrian rebel group, Al Nusra Front -- deemed a terrorist organization by the United States -- has vowed to take the battle to Lebanon if Hezbollah does not stop assisting Assad's forces.
Nasrallah was unapologetic about what he has consistently described as Hezbollah’s responsibility to defend besieged Shiite communities of Lebanese ancestry in Syria, near the Lebanese border.
Hezbollah has accused Syrian rebels of targeting Shiites with kinship ties to Lebanon who live near the Syrian town of Qusair, just a few miles from the Lebanese border. Battles between pro- and anti-government forces have lately been raging in and around Qusair. Hezbollah, also listed as a terrorist group by Washington, insists that its role in Syria is limited to self defense.
“We state clearly that we will not let the Lebanese in Qusair countryside stay subject to attacks by armed groups,” Nasrallah declared.
Nasrallah acknowledged that Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria, but dismissed reports that as many as 500 had died. “Lebanon is a small country; who could hide these numbers of martyrs?” Nasrallah asked.
However, Nasrallah did not provide a toll for the mounting Hezbollah casualties in Syria.
The sectarian tension arising from the Syrian civil war has fanned fear that the conflict could destabilize neighboring Lebanon, with its long history of communal conflict. But Nasrallah said Hezbollah did not want the Syrian war to spread to Lebanon.
The Hezbollah leader warned, however, that the threatened destruction of Sayyed Zainab, a major Shiite shrine south of Damascus, the Syrian capital, could have “serious repercussions.”
Some Syrian opposition fighters, Nasrallah said, have threatened to destroy the shrine, which is a destination for Shiite pilgrims from across the globe. Reports have indicated that Shiite militiamen from Lebanon and Iraq have been enlisted to defend the golden-domed site, believed to be the burial place of the prophet Muhammad’s revered granddaughter.
Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.
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