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Hezbollah's reclusive leader, in rare public appearance, claims to have Israeli bodies
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, center, with the black-turban, is seen escorted by his bodyguards as he walks between the crowds taking part in Ashoura commemorations in the Hezbollah stronghold of south Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday Jan. 19, 2008. Nasrallah appeared in public Saturday for the first time in more than a year to take part in the most important holiday for Shiite Muslims. The last time Nasrallah appeared in public was in September 2006 at a "Victory Rally" marking the end of a monthlong conflict between Israel and the militant Shiite group. - photo by Associated Press

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Hezbollah's reclusive leader claimed Saturday the militant group had the remains of Israeli soldiers killed in Lebanon during the 2006 war, saying the dead were left behind "in our villages and fields."

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah's graphic description appeared aimed at pressuring Israel to accept a prisoner exchange. Israel is thought to be holding at least seven Lebanese prisoners while Hezbollah has two Israeli soldiers it captured in July 2006, triggering the war.

"Your army left behind the remains of soldiers in our villages and fields," he said, in a mocking address to the Israeli people, during a speech to tens of thousands of Shiites taking part in commemorations marking Ashoura, their most important holiday. "They (Israeli army) were so weak on the field that they left behind remains not of one, two or three but a large number of your soldiers."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office refused to respond to Nasrallah's comments. The Israeli military condemned them as "cruel and cynical," although it refused to address the substance of the claims.

"His speech demonstrates that the Hezbollah terrorist organization violates the values that are sacred to all religions including Islam," the statement said. "We call upon all those with the most basic common sense to view him as cowardly and to condemn him."

Commentators on Israeli evening newscasts were adamant that no Israeli bodies from the 2006 fighting were unaccounted for.

"All the fallen soldiers have been buried," Channel 10 Arab affairs analyst Tzvika Yehezkeli said. "His claims regarding a corpse are being denied in Israel, both in the defense establishment and other departments which dealt with the war. It is not true."

Other commentators noted that there were detailed pathological reports following the death of each soldier. Official Israeli figures say 119 Israeli soldiers died in the 2006 fighting

The Israeli military has a staunch tradition of not leaving the bodies of fallen fighters in enemy hands, in keeping with Jewish religion that demands that the dead be laid to rest in their entirety, in so far as that is possible.

"One body is almost complete," Nasrallah said. "What did the (Israeli) army say to the family of this soldiers and what remains did they give them?" he asked.

In an interview earlier this year, Nasrallah said his group had the remains of Israeli troops killed in Lebanon, but he did not go into detail at the time. He claimed in the interview that Hezbollah offered during negotiations to return the remains, but the Israeli side was not interested. Israel denied the claims at the time.

Nasrallah's appearance — his first in a year — dispelled Israeli and Arab media reports late last year that he had been demoted by Hezbollah's Iranian sponsors and that control of the group's military wing was given to his deputy. Hezbollah had denied the reports.

Nasrallah, who appeared among the crowd in the Shiite militant group's stronghold of south Beirut, has been in hiding since the first day of the war for fear of an Israeli assassination. He last spoke publicly in September 2006 at a "Victory Rally" marking the end of a monthlong war between Israel and Hezbollah and made a brief appearance during Ashoura in January 2007. Since then, he has addressed supporters through video-links or on television.

In Saturday's speech, he accused President Bush of using a recent Mideast tour to incite Arabs against Iran and telling Arab governments to confront his "satanic visions."

"Bush wants to convince our rulers and people that Iran is the enemy, that Iran poses a danger and a threat, and that Israel is a brother, a beloved friend and neighbor for whom we must extend our hand in peace," Nasrallah told tens of thousands of Shiites taking part in commemorations marking Ashoura, their most important holiday.

During Israel's 34-day offensive in the summer of 2006, it threatened to kill Nasrallah as it did his predecessor in 1992.

Nasrallah called on Arab governments to confront Bush's "satanic visions" for the Middle East, which he said serve only the interests of the U.S. and Israel.

Ashoura marks the death of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, who died in a battle in 680 against the leader of what became the Sunni branch of Islam. The battle took place in the Iraqi city of Karbala.


Associated Press Writer Steve Weizman contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

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