Nasrallah's comments prompted thunderous applause from his supporters gathered at a stadium in Beirut [AFP]

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has warned that his group will "cut off the hand" of anyone who tries to arrest members of his Shia movement over the 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister.

"Whoever thinks the resistance could possibly accept any accusation against any of its jihadists or leaders is mistaken - no matter the pressures and threats," Nasrallah said on Thursday.

"The hand that attempts to reach [our members] will be cut off," he added, prompting thunderous applause from hundreds of his party supporters gathered in a stadium in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburb of Beirut.

The Hezbollah chief held his speech, aired via closed-circuit television, to mark the group's Martyr's Day.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), a UN-backed investigation into al-Hariri's murder, is reportedly set to issue an indictment soon that will implicate high-ranking members of Hezbollah as being involved in his death.

Nasrallah, whose party fought a devastating war with Israel in 2006, said his movement would defend itself against any accusation through whatever means it found appropriate.

"Whoever thinks that the resistance will not defend itself and its honour against any accusation or attack by whatever means it finds appropriate in agreement with its allies in Lebanon is mistaken," he said.

Prepared for war

Nasrallah, who has not appeared in public for more than two years, also said his movement - the most powerful military and political force in the country - was ready for another round with Israel, its arch-foe.

"We await the day the indictment will be released," he said. "We are ready for any Israeli war on Lebanon and will again be victorious, Inshallah [God willing].

"Whoever thinks that threatening us with another Israeli war will scare us is mistaken.

"On the contrary, whoever speaks of another war is bearing good news and not threatening us."

Nasrallah's speech was the latest move in an increasingly heated campaign to fend off the anticipated STL findings in connection with the killing of Hariri and 22 others in a Beirut bombing on February 14, 2005.

The head of the Iranian and Syrian-backed movement has warned against any accusations by the tribunal and said further Lebanese co-operation with the court would be tantamount to an attack on Hezbollah.

Despite Nasrallah's warnings, Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister and son of the slain former premier, has vowed to see the tribunal through.

Analysts have warned the standoff could lead to the collapse of the government and a repeat of the 18-month political deadlock that degenerated into deadly clashes and brought Lebanon close to civil war in May 2008.

Source: Agencies