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Lebanese rally to mark Hariri's death
Updated: 2006-02-15 09:26

BEIRUT: At least half a million Lebanese packed central Beirut on Tuesday, a year to the day after the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, giving new impetus to Lebanon's anti-Syrian coalition.

A Lebanese demonstrator displays a poster of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri during a gathering marking the first anniversary of Hariri's assassination in Beirut, February 14, 2006. [Reuters]

The turnout was reminiscent of huge protests after last year's February 14 killing of Hariri and 22 others.

Those demonstrations, coupled with international pressure, forced Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon, although Damascus denies any role in the assassination.

Syria's Lebanese foes said Tuesday's rally would revive a campaign to force pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud to quit and to punish those behind the truck bombing that killed Hariri.

"By being present here today, you foil the conspiracy ... against Lebanon, against Rafik al-Hariri, against Lebanon's freedom, independence and dignity," the former prime minister's son and political heir Saad al-Hariri told the crowd from behind bullet-proof glass.

Believing he, too, could be killed, Hariri has spent more than six months abroad, but returned for the anniversary.

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States remained united with the people of Lebanon in bringing those responsible for Hariri's killing to justice.

AdvertisementAdvertisementFor the past year, the coalition of Sunni Muslim, Christian and Druze political forces which organised the rally has been demanding Lahoud's resignation and the truth about Hariri's assassination, which it blames on Damascus.

But it has been weakened by internal squabbling, a wave of bombings and killings, and regional pressure.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt denounced Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as the "tyrant of Damascus" and demanded that Lahoud leave the presidential palace in Baabda, near Beirut.

"Bashar the terrorist brought you, and the Lebanese people will get rid of you," he said, addressing Lahoud.

"Oh Beirut, we want revenge on Lahoud and Bashar," added Jumblatt, who rarely ventures from his mountain home, fearing assassination. "There will be no independence, no sovereignty while the symbol of the Syrian regime sits in Baabda."

In Damascus, few ordinary Syrians were concerned about the Beirut rally, saying the Hariri issue has turned into a U.S.-backed campaign aimed at destabilising Syria and blaming it for divisions among the Lebanese.

At 12:55 (10:55 a.m. British time), the exact time of the seafront explosion that hit Hariri's motorcade, the Beirut crowd observed a minute's silence followed by chants of "Syria out".
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