HARISSA, Lebanon (AFP) – Anti-Syrian Christian leader Samir Geagea scoffed at Hezbollah’s claims of victory in its conflict with Israel, at a rally attended by tens of thousands.
“We are the victors, and yet we do not feel it was victory but rather that a real catastrophe befell our country, and that our fate and destiny are at the mercy of the winds,” said the Lebanese Forces (LF) leader and member of Lebanon’s “March 14” group Sunday.
Crowds flocked to a hilltop Maronite cathedral in Harissa north of Beirut, site of a giant statue of the Virgin Mary, for a mass and to hear Geagea at the rally staged as a memorial for “martyrs” of his party members killed during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.
The rally, the first by the anti-Syrian camp since the devastating conflict with Israel, attracted tens of thousands of supporters, according to an estimate by an AFP correspondent.
It came two days after Syrian-backed Shiite group Hezbollah held a giant demonstration in Beirut to celebrate “victory” in the July-August war with Israel.
“We are the victors because it was us who were demanding the (Lebanese) army’s deployment (in south Lebanon), backed by UNIFIL (peacekeepers), while they were opposed,” said Geagea, without naming Hezbollah.
The March 14 group, which includes parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, and Druze chief Walid Jumblatt, criticised Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers on July 12 that sparked the conflict and has called for the group to disarm.
“They demand a strong state but how can a strong state be built with a statelet within its midst? How can it be done with arms and ammunition continuing to flow in, when they force the state to follow their own schedule?” asked Geagea.
“We say to them that once we find a solution to the arms, it will be possible to build a strong state,” he said, keeping a calm tone throughout his speech.
“The tears expressed the exact feelings of the people,” he said, referring to Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s criticism of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora who shed tears during an Arab conference held in Beirut during the war.
It was “out of the question to speak of victory”, with the more than 1,200 people killed in Lebanon alone, overwhelmingly civilians, and billions of dollars in damage inflicted on the country, he said.
Geagea, 53, a former head of the LF militia which was disbanded after the civil war, became the only warlord to stand trial for crimes committed during the conflict. He was sentenced to several life sentences for murder and attempted murder.
He spent 11 years in solitary confinement before the rise of the anti-Syrian camp following the February 2005 assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri and the subsequent pullout of Syrian troops whose country was widely accused of the murder.
Geagea, who was freed under an amnesty law passed by the Lebanese parliament in July 2005, also attacked Syria for not setting up diplomatic relations with his country in his Harissa speech.
“Syria still does not recognise Lebanon and that’s why it refuses to demarcate the borders and to set up diplomatic relations, and that is why we want to continue to resist,” said the LF leader.
Lebanon’s Christian camp is divided, with rival leader General Michel Aoun having forged an alliance with Hezbollah although he fought an abortive “war of liberation” against Syrian forces at the tailend of the 15-year civil conflict.