BEIRUT (Reuters) - Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah threatened Israel with “open war” on Thursday and accused the Jewish state of killing a top commander who was among the United States’ most wanted men.
“Zionists, if you want this type of open war then let the whole world hear: let it be an open war,” Nasrallah told mourners at the funeral of Imad Moughniyah, a legend to Hezbollah but one of the men most wanted by Israel and the United States for planning attacks that killed hundreds.
Moughniyah, hunted by Israel and the United States for two decades, was killed by a bomb in Damascus on Tuesday.
Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah and its main backer Iran accused Israel of assassinating him. Israel rejected the charge, though its Mossad spy service had long sought to kill him.
Even before Nasrallah spoke, the Jewish state put its embassies and other interests abroad on high alert and boosted troop deployments on the Lebanese border for fear of reprisal.
“We have the right, like all human beings, of self-defense and, God willing, we will do whatever is required to defend our brothers, leaders, people and our country,” Nasrallah said, addressing the mass funeral via video link.
He said the group’s initial investigation into the killing showed that Israel was behind it. Nasrallah gave no details but said it was an attack outside the “natural battleground” — both sides of the Lebanon-Israel border.
The United States voiced strong concern over his remarks. “Quite clearly, Hezbollah has a long record of carrying out violent acts, acts of terrorism around the globe,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Nasrallah said that while the assassination was a painful blow, it would not weaken Hezbollah or its military structure. A visibly emotional Nasrallah said Moughniyah had played a major role in Hezbollah’s 34-day war against Israel in 2006.
Pallbearers in camouflage fatigues carried Moughniyah’s coffin, draped in Hezbollah’s yellow flag, into the street for a funeral procession attended by tens of thousands of men and women and led by a military band.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki attended the funeral and read a condolence note from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Reflecting deep divisions in Lebanon, Moughniyah’s funeral took place shortly after a rally by the anti-Syrian ruling coalition to mark the third anniversary of the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
A large crowd waving red, white and green Lebanese flags, gathered in pouring rain at Martyrs’ Square in central Beirut for speeches by anti-Syrian leaders, including Hariri’s son and political heir, Saad.
Hariri said his hand was extended to the Syria-backed opposition to end a 15-month conflict that has deepened communal rifts and left Lebanon without a president since November.
Nasrallah responded: “When we see that the extended hand is sincere, it will only be met by an extended hand.”
Hariri’s assassination on February 14, 2005, plunged Lebanon into its worst crisis since the 1975-90 civil war and led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces from the country. Anti-Syrian politicians blame Damascus for his death. Syria denies any role.
At the United Nations, France and the United States drafted a statement condemning Hariri’s killing and “all targeted assassinations” of Lebanese officials since October 2004.
But the statement was amended after objections from Libya and other Security Council members. The agreed statement expressed great concern at “any targeted assassinations that have been committed in Lebanon or in any other place”.
Diplomats said some council members like Libya saw that as a veiled reference to Moughniyah’s killing.
Moughniyah was the most senior member of Hezbollah to be killed since its previous secretary-general, Abbas Mussawi, died in a 1992 Israeli helicopter ambush in southern Lebanon.
He was implicated in the 1983 bombings of the U.S. embassy and U.S. Marine and French peacekeeping barracks in Beirut, which killed over 350 people, as well as the kidnapping of Westerners in Lebanon in the 1980s.
Israel accuses Moughniyah of planning the 1994 bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people and of involvement in a 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in the Argentine capital that killed 28.
The United States indicted him for his role in planning and participating in the 1985 hijacking of a U.S. TWA airliner and the killing of an American passenger. Washington welcomed Moughniyah’s death.
Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Laila Bassam in Beirut, Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by Dominic Evans