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French Version

Beirut on knife edge as parliament meets (Daily Star)

Thousands occupy Martyr's Square before midnight in defiance of ban

Lebanon is bracing itself for further turmoil after the country's political opposition vowed to ignore a government ban on demonstrations and hold a mass rally in Beirut later today.

Lebanon's pro-Syrian government last night imposed a ban on all public demonstrations ahead of a mass rally called by opponents of the regime which was set to coincide with a counter-demonstration organized by pro-government and Syrian loyalists.

Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh said: "All security forces are asked to take all necessary measures to protect security and order, and to ban demonstrations and gatherings on Monday."

But within hours of the announcement, as The Daily Star was going to press thousands of demonstrators carrying Lebanese flags filled the center of Beirut before the banning order officially came into force.

Following a hastily convened meeting following the government decision, opposition supporters, who have called on the government to resign following the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri, insisted they would go ahead with a peaceful sit-in at Hariri's grave in the grounds of the Mohammed al-Amin Mosque in downtown Beirut in defiance of the ban.

Democratic Gathering leader Walid Jumblatt said: "The opposition demonstration will go ahead despite all obstacles."

Opposition Qornet Shehwan Gathering MP Samir Abdel-Malak added: "We will not call off the sit-in but we will gather in any spot available, in our city quarters, small towns and villages. They cannot forbid the crowds to gather in their streets and their local quarters, or can they?"

The sit-in is likely to provide a tense backdrop to today's parliamentary session which will be dominated by the opposition's call for a confidence vote in the government.

It also coincides with a one-day general strike called by business leaders.

Over the weekend troops in full combat gear were busy fencing off streets and alleyways leading to the Parliament building and to Hariri's grave.

Downtown Beirut's chic restaurants, nightclubs and sidewalk cafes, which are usually bustling with trade at the weekends, were closed on Sunday as fencing surrounded the area, turning it into a ghost town.

The army operation followed Saturday's demonstration where thousands of youths linked their hands in a human barricade stretching from Hariri's grave to the area where he was murdered chanting "Syria out."

Army Command issued a statement warning people against gathering in public squares. The statement said: "Citizens are asked not to demonstrate in all areas particularly in the streets and squares surrounding the Parliament building including Martyrs Square, Nijmeh Square and Riyad Solh Square, starting from 3:00 a.m. Monday throughout the rest of the day."

Pro-Syrian loyalist groups, represented by the Follow-up Committee for the Organization of Civil Society (COCS), who only announced their intention to organize a counter-demonstration against the opposition on Friday, said they would call off their protest "in compliance" with the government ban.

Pro-Syrian Beirut MP Nasser Qandil said: "We listened to the voice of reason and decided to call off the demonstration. We received telephone calls from prominent figures and religious leaders including Grand Mufti Mohammed Qabbani and former Premier Salim Hoss, who suggested we end any further escalation."

The opposition has accused the government of mobilizing what it called a "loyalist mob" to create a climate of tension aimed at intimidating people.

Abdel-Malak said: "The government is stirring up troubles to blackmail the people and frighten them that a return of civil unrest and violence is imminent."

Hoss warned Lebanon was on the brink of a survival crisis that threatens its very existence, calling for "a peaceful dialogue rather than escalating the confrontation." He also said: "The media is available to all parties. Resorting to the street is not a practical avenue under current political conditions."

Last week Prime Minister Omar Karami was confident he would win a parliamentary confidence vote if one was called, but in an interview on Al-Arabiya television he expressed some unease about the prospect.

Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir has demanded the departure of Karami's Cabinet and called for a transitional government of national unity to oversee a total Syrian military withdrawal and free and credible elections in spring.

Beirut 28-02-2005
Adnan El Ghoul
The Daily Star

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