BEIRUT (AFP) – Thousands of people defied a government ban and massed in the heart of Beirut as Lebanese parliament held a stormy debate set to culminate in a vote of no-confidence in the pro-Syrian regime.  The anti-Syria rally came exactly two weeks after the assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri which triggered a wave of public opposition against the Lebanese government and its backers in Damascus who are blamed for the murder. Waving large red and white Lebanese flags and shouting “Syria out!” protesters descended on Martyrs’ Square where Hariri is buried as hundreds of heavily armed troops and police guarded surrounding streets but did not prevent the rally.

Many stayed on throughout the night despite the ban on demonstrations coming into force and media reports put the size of the crowds at 50,000, while an army officer said there were about 20,000 demonstrators.

“Through your resistance you are writing a new page in history, one of regained independence,” Druze opposition leader Walid Jumblatt said.

“Together we want a sovereign and independent Lebanon, the departure of Syrian secret services and above all the truth: who killed Rafiq Hariri,” he said. “We want to be friends with the Syrian people but we want the Syrian army to go.”

Since the murder of Hariri in a massive bomb blast in Beirut on February 14, international pressure has mounted on Syria to end its dominance of Lebanese political affairs and pull out its 14,000 troops stationed there.

The parliament session will be a crucial test for the government of Prime Minister Omar Karameh which took office after Hariri resigned in October in a row over Syrian influence.

Karameh denied his government had a role in the attack, that also killed another 17 people, and called for national unity in an address to the assembly.

“To fire off political accusations pinning the responsibility of this criminal murder on the government without any proof is a grave injustice,” he said.

Karameh called for a vote of confidence in his government and urged “all parties to take part in dialogue… to come to an agreement away from outside interference.”

The opposition plans to call a vote of no-confidence in the government but the debate, called by 37 of the house’s 127 members to demand the truth about Hariri’s assassination, may last for several days given the large number of deputies who asked for time to speak.

“The Lebanese parliament, and all the Lebanese people want to know who killed Rafiq Hariri,” said parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri.

The opposition does not have the majority to bring down the government, but has been trying to rally the votes of MPs angered by Hariri’s assassination.

“He who votes today for the government will be viewed as an accomplice in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri,” charged opposition MP Walid Eido.

Opposition MP Nayla Moawad said Sunday that three members of the government — Energy Minister Maurice Sehnawi, Economy and Commerce Minister Adnane Kassar and junior minister for administrative development Ibrahim Daher — had resigned.

But Daher denied the claim and the other ministers could not be reached for comment.


Washington’s number two Middle East pointman, David Satterfield, called again on Syria to start pulling out its troops before elections are due to be held in Lebanon in line with a UN Security Council resolution adopted in September.

“We want to see free and fair elections take place this spring,” he told reporters after meeting Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmud Hammud.

“It’s important that steps take place on the ground prior to those elections including the beginning of the implementation of Resolution 1559.”

Resolution 1559 calls for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon and respect for its sovereignty but a specific reference to Syria was deleted at the last minute.

The Beirut government and Syria have rejected responsibility for Hariri’s killing and refused to allow an international inquiry, but have agreed to cooperate with a visiting UN fact-finding mission.

Lebanese Defence Minister Abdel Rahim Mrad announced Thursday an imminent Syrian military pullback to the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon, but there have still been no signs of the redeployment.

Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara, on a regional tour, has rejected pressure for the implementation of Resolution 1559, insisting that Damascus and Beirut remained bound by the Taef accord which foresaw a more gradual pullback.

Shara was on Monday in Saudi Arabia, where the royal family has voiced strong interest in the fate of Hariri, a close business partner and naturalised Saudi citizen.