Hezbollah leader denies role in deadly bombings


BAALBEK, Lebanon -- The Hezbollah guerrilla chief suspected in the Buenos Aires bomb attack that killed 96 people says he and other Lebanese are "the main victims" of terrorism, not the perpetrators.

Sheik Subhi Tufayli said the West has picked the wrong villain in condemning Muslim guerrillas. He said his followers have a "divine right" to oppose steps toward peace with Israel, such as yesterday's opening of a border crossing between Israel and Jordan.

Before presiding over that ceremony at the Red Sea, U.S. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher was in Syria to appeal for curbs on the activities of Sheik Tufayli and the Hezbollah "Party of God."

Israeli officials have accused Sheik Tufayli of planning the car bomb explosion at a Jewish community center in Argentina July 18 that killed almost 100 people. They also have suggested that he was behind two recent bomb attacks in London and the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires.

The cleric denied the accusations.

In an interview at his heavily guarded home in the Bekaa Valley, a stronghold of Hezbollah, Sheik Tufayli offered a looking-glass view of the West and Hezbollah. He said it is the West that sees the opposite of reality.

"We are the ones labeled terrorists, and then our bodies are shattered everywhere, our houses are destroyed, our children killed," he said, referring to the consequences of Israeli attacks in southern Lebanon.

The sheik, a rotund man with turquoise and silver pinkie rings, also was suspected of a role in the holding of some Western hostages in Lebanon in the 1980s. He was the head of Hezbollah from 1987 to 1990.

A hard-liner who controls guerrillas in the Bekaa Valley, he is said to be preparing another bid for leadership by challenging the current Hezbollah general secretary, Sheik Hussein Nasrallah. Sheik Nasrallah's predecessor, Abbas Musawi, was killed with his wife and child in an ambush by Israeli gunships in February 1992.

Hezbollah's immediate goal is to force Israeli troops from the strip of southern Lebanon they have occupied since 1982. But Sheik Tufayli said the longer-range goal is "the liberation of Palestine, to the sea," an area that includes Israel.

After the Buenos Aires bombing, Mr. Christopher said that "groups like Hezbollah that wreak havoc and bloodshed must be defeated." Argentina reportedly asked Lebanon to extradite Sheik Tufayli, but then reconsidered.

Sheik Tufayli defended armed resistance against Israel but said, "That does not include killing innocent elderly or children. God has forbidden that."

"Whoever did that in Argentina and London does not believe in Islam," he said. "It was not Hezbollah."

He would not say whether the armed struggle would be confined to Lebanon and Israel. "The target is not the subject of territory," he said.

More broadly, he makes an argument common in Lebanon, that Israel's continued occupation justifies armed resistance, much like the resistance of the American revolutionaries to the British.

He said the West is hypocritical when it condemns humanitarian hTC violations elsewhere but not Israel's periodic attacks on Lebanese villages villages -- such as one last week that killed a family of seven -- or the assassinations and kidnappings of Hezbollah by Israeli forces.

He carries the argument further than most Lebanese when he says neither Palestinians nor other Arab countries have a right to make peace with Israel.

"They are traitors," he said.

Israel contends Syria and Iran control the Hezbollah. Sheik Tufayli conceded there is "a crossroads of interest" with Syria. As to Iran, which reputedly supplies arms to Hezbollah, he said, "It is the duty of Iran to give manpower and materials to support the cause of Muslims."

For fear of Israeli assassination attempts, he moves his location often, he said. His home near Baalbek, adorned with all-black flags of the Islamic resistance, is guarded by men with a variety of automatic weapons. They are dressed in "Desert Storm" U.S. Army fatigues from the Gulf War.

Sheik Tufayli said he agreed to talk to an American reporter because "the prophet said talk to everybody. We think that there are good people all over the world, even if they are deceived."

Asked if that included Israel, the sheik appeared taken aback: "I haven't thought of this previously."

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