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Archive for Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Lebanese stage massive protest against Syria

February 22, 2005

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— Tens of thousands marched Monday in the biggest anti-Syrian protest in Lebanese history amid signals that Syria will soon withdraw its troops from parts of the country.

The protest marked one week since the Feb. 14 death of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and began at the bomb-scarred site of the former prime minister's assassination, which turned many Lebanese against Syria and increased international pressure on Damascus to extract its army from Lebanon.

Holding aloft red roses and Lebanese flags, the throngs on the streets shouted insults at Syria and demanded the resignation of the pro-Syrian government in a march that began at the seaside site where Hariri and 16 others were killed and ended at his grave in the city center.

The protesters wore scarves of red and white -- the colors of Lebanon's flag -- which have become the symbol of the opposition's "independence uprising," described as a peaceful campaign to dislodge the government and force the Syrian army out of Lebanon.

Hariri's assassination has brought Lebanese together and strengthened the opposition, but it was unclear whether the momentum would force a change in government or push the Syrian army out of the country.

In Damascus, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said Syrian President Bashar Assad affirmed during a meeting that his country will "soon" take steps to withdraw its army from Lebanese areas in line with a 1989 agreement. It was not clear whether that meant Syria would completely leave Lebanon.

Syria, which sent its army into Lebanon in 1976 amid the bloody civil war, has always pledged to implement the 1989 accord that ended the conflict, and has redeployed troops several times since 2000. However, a withdrawal to the eastern Bekaa Valley near the border that was scheduled for the early 1990s, followed by an eventual total pullout, has never been carried out.

Demonstrators in Beirut beat drums and held up portraits of leaders assassinated during the 1975-90 civil war as they sang patriotic songs. Shouts of "Syria out!" and "Syria is the criminal," competed with loud insults directed against the Syrian president -- words that until few months ago few dared to say in public.

Marching past policemen and army troops in full battle gear, some carried banners reading, "Independence," and chanted, "The government of puppets must fall" and "Enough blood, leave us alone." Playing on words, one placard read in English: "Syrial killers."

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