Anti-Syrian protesters flood Lebanese capital
BEIRUT: Hundreds of thousands of anti-Syrian protesters flooded central Beirut on Monday in what witnesses said was Lebanon’s biggest demonstration since former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri’s killing exactly a month ago.
Flag-waving crowds from across Lebanon packed the capital’s Martyrs’ Square, near Hariri’s grave, and swamped nearby areas to demand an international inquiry into his death, the sacking of Syrian-backed security chiefs and a total Syrian pullout.
In contrast to previous anti-Syrian protests since a bomb blast killed Hariri on Feb. 14, many Sunni Muslims joined Druze and Christians in taking to the streets. Hariri was a Sunni.
“We demand to know who killed Rafik al-Hariri,” said Mustapha Mrad, a Sunni demonstrator carrying a Lebanese flag with a Hariri badge pinned to his jacket.
Organisers said a million people had joined the protest. No independent estimate was available, but witnesses said the rally looked even bigger than last week’s pro-Syrian demonstration organised by Hizbollah and attended by hundreds of thousands. Men, woman and children formed a vast sea of red and white - the opposition colours - as they thronged the square and streets all around. They stood in hushed silence for two minutes to commemorate Hariri, a billionaire philanthropist.
They heard their leaders heaping blame on Syria and its allies for the assassination and demanding a Syrian pullout.
“You want the truth? It’s clear... the world and Lebanon know them (the killers) well, know them one by one, name by name, rank by rank,” said Marwan Hamadeh, a Druze opposition MP who escaped an assassination attempt in October.
Syria has denied any involvement in Hariri’s killing. “I ask his excellency the president (Emile Lahoud) to meet the demand of all Lebanese: resign and let us rest,” Christian politician Carlos Edde told the crowd to wild applause.
Protesters in trucks, buses and cars jammed Beirut’s eastern and northern entrances as they headed for the city centre near the sea front. Some even arrived by boat to avoid the traffic. “Syria out” and “Sovereignty, freedom, independence”, the crowds chanted. One placard read: “We want the truth: Who killed Hariri?” and another said: “May God curse your killers.”
The opposition rally came a day after huge crowds turned out in the south for an anti-U.S. demonstration called by Hizbollah, a Shi’ite Muslim political and military group allied to Syria.
The Beirut protest could be the last of a series of rallies used by each side of Lebanon’s political divide to show their strength. Political sources said fears were growing that street agitation, though peaceful so far, could spill into violence amid rifts over Syria’s role since Hariri’s assassination.
They said the authorities were pondering a ban on future demonstrations to be enforced by the Lebanese army.
Lahoud and other loyalists have called for an end to the protests and urged the opposition to join a political dialogue. Last week hundreds of thousands of people gathered in central Beirut to support Hizbollah’s right to bear arms and to thank Syria for its role in Lebanon, where Damascus has kept troops since intervening in the country’s civil war in 1976.
Maronite Christian Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, a key opposition mentor, said before flying to Washington for talks with President George W. Bush that “muscle-flexing in the street” should be ended, warning of the protests’ negative impact on stability and the economy.
Washington, leading the calls for Syria to withdraw its forces from the country, said it welcomed promises by Damascus to do so but wanted to see deeds, not just words. reuters