BEIRUT (AP) — The leader of Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah warned Sunday that hard-line foreign fighters in Syria posed a global threat as they trickled home, accusing European countries of facilitating their joining the rebellion against President Bashar Assad.
Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said European countries didn't think the fighters, thousands of whom have poured into Syria mostly in al-Qaida inspired groups, would return home. Most are from the region, but smaller numbers hold European citizenship.
"Many of them are alive, and some of them have begun returning to their first fronts — in Europe, and other places. This is a threat to the security of Europe, international security, how will these countries deal with them?" he said, speaking via video link at a festival celebrating Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.
There are between 7,000 and 10,000 pro-rebel foreign fighters in Syria among some 100,000 to 120,000 armed rebels, according to a May report by Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Center.
The Syrian conflict began with largely peace protests in March 2011, although it has evolved into a civil war. Islamic extremists, including foreign fighters and Syrian rebels who have taken up hard-line al-Qaida-style ideologies, have played an increasingly prominent role among fighters.
European countries have scrambled to deal with the prospect of their nationals returning home from war in Syria.
The numbers of foreign fighters does not include those fighting on behalf of Assad — including members of Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which has sent fighters to support Assad's troops. They were instrumental in helping Assad's forces dislodge opposition fighters from their strongholds along the countries' border, severing important supply lines and ultimately weakening chaotic rebels.
The charismatic leader also praised Syria's upcoming presidential elections, expected on June 3, and accused rebels of trying to disrupt the vote that Assad is widely expected to win.
Syria's divided opposition has condemned the vote as a sham as the country enters its year of a conflict that has killed over 162,000 people.
As Nasrallah prepared to speak, Shiite neighborhoods in Beirut erupted in celebratory gunfire. Tens of thousands of people turned out waving the bright yellow Hezbollah flag in the southern town of Bint Jbeil, where Nasrallah spoke on screens from an undisclosed location.
Also Sunday, Lebanese security forces arrested radical Muslim cleric Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammed, the state news agency reported.
The National News Agency did not say why Mohammed was arrested in the eastern town of Aley. The Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star said the arrest was over his suspected involvement in clashes in the northern city of Tripoli that killed dozens of people over the past year.
Mohammed returned to Lebanon in 2005, after living 20 years in Britain where he headed a radical Islamic group. Britain has banned him from returning.
It wasn't immediately possible to contact Mohammed's lawyer.
Mohammed was previously sentenced to life in prison in Lebanon in November 2010, following a terrorism conviction, but was released on bail after witnesses recanted their testimony.
Also Sunday, the United Nations urged Lebanon's leaders to swiftly elect a new president.
The country's last president, Michel Suleiman, completed his six-year term on Sunday without a replacement, plunging the country into a political vacuum.
The Lebanese are deeply split over the civil war in neighboring Syria and have lined up behind opposing sides in that conflict. Those deep divisions are among the reasons for the lack of agreement on a candidate for the country's next president, whom must be decided on consensually.
"The (U.N.) Secretary-General regrets that the Lebanese Parliament was unable to elect a new president within the timeframe set by the constitution. He calls on the country's leaders to engage intensively to ensure the election of a new president without delay," The U.N. said in a statement.