Hizbollah returns with a message

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The slogans were familiar. Death to America. Death to Israel. Death to the American-Zionist plot. But echoing off the walls of West Beirut's shopping streets yesterday - more than two years after the end of the Lebanese war - the thousands of voices possessed an eerie quality.

Hizbollah was back in town. Its members were monopolising the centre of Beirut with their yellow and red flags and their posters calling for military resistance to the Israelis in southern Lebanon and an end to the Washington peace talks.

European businessmen found themselves caught up in hour-long traffic jams while others watched with fascination and faint concern as Hizbollah's unarmed legions tramped past them. They were under no threat. Hizbollah was on its best behaviour.

The message was not as simple as the banners suggested. Ostensibly, Hizbollah was supporting the continuation of the armed struggle against Israel. But its target seemed closer to home. The office of Lebanon's Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, a Saudi billionaire, lay scarcely 50 yards from the young men carrying a covert message all its own. 'The peace of regimes is not binding on a nation,' it announced, signed in big green letters with the word: 'Hizbollah'. Was it, perhaps, Mr Hariri's 'regime' to which it was referring?

Hizbollah members are among the Prime Minister's critics. They do not like Saudi Arabia, they do not like Mr Hariri's plans to reclaim Shia Muslim property along the coast south of Beirut, and they do not like his financial connections with the United States. And Hizbollah sympathisers think Mr Hariri is becoming far too powerful.