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Hundreds of Thousands rally in Beirut against Syria one week after Hariri murder

February 21, 2005 AFP


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BEIRUT - Thousands of Lebanese massed on the Beirut seafront chanting "Syria out" as pressure mounted on the government and its backers in Damascus a week after the killing of ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

The mass rally was called by Lebanon's opposition which has been galvanised by the murder into stepping up its campaign for an end to Syrian interference in the country's political affairs and a withdrawal of its 14,000 troops.

Waving the red and white scarves and banners of what the opposition is calling its "peaceful uprising for independence," demonstrators shouted "Syria out" and "Down with the government" as they marched on the site where Hariri was killed on February 14.

Lebanon's government, facing mounting calls to resign over the murder, has vowed to cooperate with UN investigators to find his killers but rejected a full international inquiry.

Security was tight for the demonstration with anti-riot police and soldiers out in force, but it was proceeding peacefully through the streets of Beirut.

At 1055 GMT the sea of demonstrators observed five minutes of silence to mark the exact moment of the bomb blast on the Beirut seafront that killed Hariri and 16 others and sent shockwaves through the country.

Opposition lawmakers scored a victory in parliament on Monday, winning an agreement for a debate on the situation which could see a vote of no-confidence in the government of Prime Minister Omar Karameh.

The assassination of Hariri has exacerbated domestic tensions over Syria's political and military sway in the country 15 years after the end of its devastating civil war, and added to international pressure on Damascus to pull out of its smaller neighbour.

Hariri, 60, a five-time prime minister and a billionaire tycoon credited with spearheading Lebanon's post-war rebuilding, had quit as premier in October in a row over Syrian interference and was replaced by the pro-Syria Karameh.

In Beirut, Lebanese security forces were on alert to guard against the opposition demonstration turning violent, while some schools in the capital have been closed.

"What I fear in this tense situation, any foreign party could infiltrate into the ranks of security forces or the students to carry out any act," Interior Minister Suleiman Frangieh said.

Thousands of people continue to converge each evening on Martyrs' Square, where Hariri is buried, to shout "Syria Out" and "Down with the government," despite warnings from the authorities that they will start banning illegal gatherings.

The Lebanese regime denies any role in the Hariri killing and Damascus has accused Israel, denouncing what it calls "campaigns of intimidation" against it by the United States and the Jewish state.

And a meeting of pro-Syrian Lebanese political leaders on Sunday had rejected calls for the government to quit and said the crisis should be resolved through dialogue.

Opposition MPs, who make up about a third of the 128-seat parliament, have rejected any talks before Hariri's killers are found.

Druze MP Walid Jumblatt, a leading opposition figure who says he has fears for his own personal safety, has said that the only direct dialogue with Damascus should be held to oversee a Syrian withdrawal.

Lebanon said Sunday it will cooperate with a UN commission of inquiry into the killing to find those responsible and try to ease tensions provoked by the murder although it rejects a full-blown international probe.

Internationally, France and the United States, which co-sponsored a UN Security Council resolution last September demanding the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon, have been the most vocal in insisting on a UN inquiry.

A UN team of investigators is due to arrive in Lebanon this week, headed by Ireland's deputy police commissioner Peter Fitzgerald.

Amid the deteriorating situation in Lebanon, Arab League chief Amr Mussa is visiting an increasingly isolated Syria, where was to hold talks with President Bashar al-Assad and Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara.