While reacting with shock and dismay to the alleged plot against Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, politicians on both sides of the sectarian fence also expressed satisfaction with the capture by Lebanese authorities of members of a gang that planned to carry out terrorist acts.

Lebanon's top military magistrate on Tuesday, formally charged and issued arrest warrants against nine people for plotting to carry out terror attacks, including the possible assassination of Nasrallah.

Based on the suspects' preliminary testimonies to a military prosecutor, Rashid Mezher, a military magistrate, charged the nine with "establishing a gang to carry out terrorist acts, undermining the state's authority and trading in and transporting military arms and explosives."

Mezher told The Associated Press by phone that he would question the nine - eight Lebanese and a Palestinian - on Thursday. He added that six other members of the ring were still at large.

Officials have not said if a country or organisation is believed to be behind the cell.

Intention

On Monday, a senior Lebanese military official said the plot against Nasrallah was "in the phase of intentions" and had not reached "the phase of implementation."

The reported plot to kill one of Lebanon's top Shia clerics and politicians by rockets came as fears of sectarian strife between Shia and Sunnis have rippled through the Middle East.

Both Nasrallah and Saad Hariri, the main political leader of Lebanon's Sunnis and the son of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese premier, have pledged not to allow any attempt to foment Sunni-Shia strife.

Mohammed Jawad Khalife, the Lebanese health minister, warned that the cycle of violence in Iraq might spread to other countries in the region.

Foiling this "terrible conspiracy ... spared the country disasters with no limits," said Salim Hoss, former prime minister.

Referring to the sectarian violence in Iraq, Hoss said, "All (Lebanese) are concerned that there are some (people) in Lebanon who want to spread the (Iraqi) contagion to our country."

"God still loves Lebanon," General Michel Aoun, a Christian leader, said on the arrests.

Hezbollah, which the United States and Israel brand as a terrorist group, is a major political force in Lebanon with 11 legislators in the 128-seat Lebanese Parliament and two ministers in the 24-member Cabinet.

The group credits itself with liberating south Lebanon from Israeli troops in 2000.