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Lebanese protesters denounce Syrian interference

Police exercise restraint ignoring ban on demonstrations

Daily Star/Saturday, November 20, 2004/ By Majdoline Hatoum

Posted on 11/19/04    8:13 pm



BEIRUT: Waving Lebanese flags and denouncing the Syrian military presence in Lebanon, thousands of students rallied

at the National Museum on Friday as hundreds of police in full riot gear watched but did not intervene.

The atmosphere was tense after Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh banned the protest last week, when he had said

he would use "any means possible" to disperse it.

"This is a victory for us, as we were able to break the unconstitutional decision to ban the demonstration," said

George Nakhle, a senior official at the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which was the main organizer of the


The demonstration included an estimated 3,000 students from the FPM, the disbanded Lebanese Forces party (LF),

the National Liberal Party and the Phalange Party.

Streets were closed for kilometers around the museum all morning, but they reopened around 3 p.m. once

demonstrators had dispersed peacefully.

"We are here today to mark the memory of Independence Day, and the independence that has not been fully attained

since Syrian forces remain on Lebanese territories," said FPM student representative Roland Khoury. "This

demonstration is a reminder that Lebanon is not yet a free independent country. But it will soon be one, and then we

will be able to celebrate true independence."

"Struggle is the only way to build a Lebanon free from all Syrian tutelage," said Elie Chamoun of the NLP, predicting

that, next year, "Lebanon will celebrate a real independence."

Opposition forces had called for the demonstration to mark the anniversary of Lebanon's independence and to

protest Syrian influence in Lebanese politics and the presence of some 14,000 Syrian troops here.

"It is no secret that the Lebanese president has been appointed by Damascus since the end of the war, but

recently it became flagrant," Hikmat Deeb, the FPM's latest candidate for Parliament, told The Daily Star.

"It is about time we take action and regain our freedom," he said.

"We want the Syrian Army and influence out of Lebanon right away," added Deeb, who failed to win a Parliamentary

seat in the 2003 Baabda-Aley by-elections.

He also praised UN Resolution 1559, and many protesters held banners calling for it to be implemented.

"This resolution stems from the will of the international community and does not hurt Lebanon at all," he said. "All it

does is call for Lebanon's independence and sovereignty."

Prominent opposition members, including some from the Qornet Shehwan Gathering, had warned the government

not to use force against demonstrators, saying the world was watching.

Previous protests by the opposition had ended violently, with Internal Security Forces members using batons and

water to disperse crowds and arresting participants.

However, while the government had said street protests would be illegal, ISF members seemed to heed

Franjieh's instructions and use maximum restraint, despite some protesters' provocative slogans.

"We kept our word and let the demonstration carry on as it was conducted in a peaceful way," Franjieh said in an

interview Friday with LBCI television. "This is a sign of goodwill toward the opposition."

However, he said the opposition should try to negotiate with authorities rather than expressing its opinions in the street.

"Opinions should be expressed through dialogue," said Franjieh. "Demonstrating this way is not a civilized way to

show people's demands."

About 1,000 ISF troopers were deployed outside universities and at major intersections across the capital in

anticipation of the protests, while hundreds of security members let 1,000 students from Sagesse University march

and meet the central demonstration in the museum area.

"The authorities did not attempt to break up the demonstration for one simple reason," said Tony Nasrallah, press

official at the FPM. "They refrained ... because they know they are under international observation."

He was referring to a Thursday statement by U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who warned the

Lebanese government against banning the demonstration and said such a move would amount to a breach of

international law.

However, roadblocks were set up to prevent protestors from moving into downtown Beirut to join another

demonstration held by the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) and the Democratic Left Movement, which organized

its demonstration in defiance of Cabinet's decision to ban demonstrations.

"Our demonstration is aimed mainly at breaking the Cabinet's decision to ban demonstrations, because we believe in

our right to expression," said Khodr Ghadban from the PSP, Chouf MP Walid Jumblatt's party.

The second demonstration took place in Riad Solh, near the Prime Minister's Office, with protestors holding banners

calling for Lebanon's independence and sovereignty, and lashing out at the extension of President Emile Lahoud's

mandate - an issue Jumblatt strongly has opposed.

Security forces had cordoned off the Cabinet's offices with tanks and other obstacles.

"The new concept of independence cannot come about with the huge imbalance in Syria-Lebanese relations," said

one student representative of the PSP. "A correction in the course of relations between the two countries is necessary

so that Lebanon can enjoy its true independence."