Middle East

Iran's Ahmadinejad feted by crowd in southern Lebanon

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has received a hero's welcome in southern Lebanon, close to the Israeli border.

Tens of thousands of people waved Iranian, Lebanese and Hezbollah flags as he spoke in a stadium in Bint Jbeil.

They cheered as he praised what he called Lebanon's resistance against Israel.

Mr Ahmadinejad has been on a two-day state visit described as provocative by Israel, the US and some Lebanese.

"You are a solid mountain. We are proud of you and will remain forever by your side," he told the crowd in Bint Jbeil, a Hezbollah bastion.

To thunderous applause he denounced the "Zionist regime" of Israel and said Israel would "disappear".

"The occupying Zionists today have no choice but to accept reality and go back to their countries of origin."

Tensions

At the entrance to Bint Jbeil a giant banner read "welcome" in Farsi and Arabic.

Signs and billboards said: "The south welcomes the protector of the resistance."

Iran contributed heavily to the cost of rebuilding villages destroyed in the south during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

The border area between Lebanon and Israel is rarely without tension. In August, two Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist and a senior Israeli army officer were killed in a clash sparked by the trimming of a tree on the Israeli side of the frontier.

Mr Ahmadinejad also visited Qana, the site of deadly Israeli air strikes in 1996 and 2006.

He visited graves of the victims and later laid a wreath at a memorial.

Lebanon Map

On Wednesday, Mr Ahmadinejad's motorcade had been showered with rice and flowers on its way from Beirut airport to the presidential palace.

Many Lebanese are alarmed at the visit, as Iran backs Hezbollah, the powerful Shia Islamist group whose war with Israel left 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis dead.

Members of Lebanon's Western-backed parliamentary majority have called the visit a provocation, saying Mr Ahmadinejad was seeking to transform Lebanon into "an Iranian base on the Mediterranean".

Speaking during a visit to Kosovo, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington rejected any efforts "to destabilise or inflame tensions" in Lebanon.

Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Ahmadinejad's visit showed how far Hezbollah had become dependent on Tehran, and Lebanon had "become a tool in the hands of other entities".

Reconstruction

Israel accuses Iran of supplying Hezbollah with weapons, but officials close to the group stress instead the Islamic Republic's support for reconstruction.

They say they have spent about $1bn (£600m) of Iranian money on humanitarian aid and rebuilding since 2006.

"Ahmadinejad has done a lot for Lebanon," 18-year-old engineering student Fatima Mazeh told the Associated Press.

"He's not controlling Lebanon. Everyone has a mind and can think for himself. We are here to stand with him during the hardest times."

But elsewhere in the country, Hezbollah and its patron are viewed with suspicion by some.

"I am disgusted by this visit," Mona, a 23-year-old Christian, told the AFP news agency. "They refer to [Ahmadinejad] as a saviour, but all he has brought us is trouble."

The state visit also comes amid tension over a UN inquiry into the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The UN tribunal is believed to be close to issuing indictments, including ones naming members of Hezbollah. Prime Minister Saad Hariri is under pressure from Hezbollah and Syria to denounce the inquiry into his father's death.

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