Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah political group, has dismissed a United Nations call for his movement to disarm, saying it was determined to maintain a military capacity to defend Lebanon.
A UN Security Council resolution demands that Hezbollah lay down its military arsenal, as all other Lebanese armed groups did at the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
But in a televised speech on Saturday Nasrallah said: "I affirm today, firmly, decisively and with the greatest conviction ... the choice of armed resistance.
"These weapons, along with the Lebanese people and army, are the only guarantee of Lebanon's protection."
Nasrallah, in hiding since 2006 for fear of assassination, says his group has been rearming since the month-long war with Israel in 2006, when it fired hundreds of rockets across the border daily into northern Israel.
Mocking a demand by visiting Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, that Hezbollah lay down its weapons, Nasrallah said he was happy that Hezbollah's military strength was a cause for concern.
"Your concern, secretary-general, reassures us and pleases us. What matters to us is that you are worried, and that America ... and Israel are worried with you," he said.
Nasrallah was addressing a Hezbollah rally in the town of Baalbek by video link on the occasion of a Shia holy day.
Ban, speaking in the Lebanese capital Beirut on Friday, said he was "deeply concerned about the military capacity of Hezbollah" and the lack of progress in disarmament.
"All these arms outside of the authorised state authority, it's not acceptable," he declared.
UN chief's visit
Ban visited the headquarters of UN peacekeeping forces in southern Lebanon, close to the border with Israel and a stronghold of Hezbollah.
The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), was expanded after the 2006 war and now has around 12,000 peacekeepers.
UNIFIL has come under attack three times in the last year in bombings which wounded Italian and French soldiers. No group claimed responsibility for the attacks.
"In my meetings with government officials I called on them to increase protection for you," Ban told UNIFIL members, adding that the 293 fatalities since the force was set up in 1978 was the highest death toll suffered by a UN peacekeeping force.
"This weighs heavily on my heart," he said.
The Lebanese army has taken on a bigger role in the south since 2006, but given the tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, there is no sign of an exit strategy for the UN force there.
Ban, who was in Lebanon for a three-day visit, has urged President Michel Sleiman to relaunch a national dialogue started in 2006 on defining a defence strategy for Lebanon.
Hezbollah's arsenal has been at the centre of the dialogue, stalled since 2010 because of bickering between rival parties.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|