BEIRUT (Reuters) - The leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah, whose backers Syria and Iran are at the centre of heightened regional tension, made a rare public appearance on Tuesday marking the Shi'ite Muslim festival of Ashura and said his group was building up its arsenal.
Surrounded by armed bodyguards, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah walked through a crowd of Shi'ites in Beirut's southern suburbs, Hezbollah's stronghold, and greeted tens of thousands of supporters from the podium before disappearing for a few minutes to give his speech via a giant screen.
Hezbollah, which fought an inconclusive 34-day war with Israel in 2006, sees serious problems facing both Syria, where a crackdown on anti-government protests has provoked mounting violence, and Iran, whose nuclear programme has led to Western sanctions and increasing isolation.
Nasrallah, who has been in hiding for fear of assassination since 2006, struck a defiant note in his speech, giving no sign that his allies' troubles were affecting Hezbollah, which has an armed wing and a political movement.
"Every day we are growing in number, our training is getting better, we are becoming more confident and our weapons are increasing," he said. "If anyone is betting that our weapons are rusting, we (say) no, we replace our rusting weapons."
Nasrallah told the crowd his public appearance was a message to those "who believe they can threaten us."
He reiterated his support for his Syrian ally, President Bashar al-Assad, described his government as a "resistance regime." The eight-month-old revolt against Assad's rule has resulted in some 3,500 deaths, according to U.N. estimates.
Hezbollah was formed nearly 30 years ago to confront Israel's occupation of south Lebanon.
The border area, inactive for more than two years, was jolted last Tuesday when a rocket was fired from south Lebanon, damaging two buildings in northern Israel and drawing return fire, but there was no claim of responsibility
Hezbollah believes the West is working to reshape the Middle East by replacing Assad with a ruler friendly to Israel and hostile to itself.
Predominantly Shi'ite Iran, Hezbollah's other main backer, is being squeezed by Western sanctions imposed because of suspicions that its nuclear programme is aimed at producing atomic weapons, though Tehran denies this.
Shortly before Nasrallah's speech tens of thousands of men, women and children marched in the streets of Beirut's southern suburbs carrying Hezbollah's yellow and black flag and banners bearing religious slogans.
Beating their chests in a sign of grief at the killing of the Prophet Mohammad's grandson, Imam Hussein, at the battle of Karbala in 680 AD, their chants ranged from "O Hussein" to "We will never be humiliated" and "Death to America, death to Israel."
The mourning festival of Ashura commemorates the death of Hussein and most of his family, leading to the division of Islam into Sunni and Shi'ite sects, a split that continues to plague the Islamic world.
(Addtional reporting by Laila Bassam, writing by Mariam Karouny; Editing by Tim Pearce)