BEIRUT (AFP) – By car, bus and boat thousands of Lebanese poured into the capital for a huge demonstration called by an emboldened opposition determined to end Syria’s near 30-year military presence in Lebanon. Hours before the mid-afternoon start to the rally, more than 1 million people, according to estimates by correspondents and photographers, were packed into Martyrs Square in central Beirut. Many waved the red, white and green Lebanese flag on a splendid, sun-splashed Mediterranean morning near the grave of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, assassinated in a bomb blast exactly one month ago and in whose memory the rally has been called.

Correspondents also reported a stream of buses and cars moving toward Beirut from the Bekaa valley in eastern Lebanon, while other participants were arriving by sea from Junieh, 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Beirut.

Beirut was swarming with activity. Flag bedecked cars, horns squealing, were everywhere and hundreds of youthful organizers struggled to maintain an orderly flow of human traffic toward Martyrs Square.

Many banks and offices shut down at noon, giving their white collar employees the afternoon off to attend the demonstration. Schools and universities likewise ended classes at mid-day.

Hariri’s killing is widely blamed here on Syria and has energized an opposition movement aimed at forcing the withdrawal of all Syrian military and intelligence units from the country.

In addition to a Syrian military withdrawal, Monday’s rally has also been called to press demands that the truth behind Hariri’s murder be established.

Syria has denied involvement in the assassination and on Saturday Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave a commitment to a UN envoy to carry out the pullback in accordance with a United Nations (newsweb sites) Security Council resolution.

Syrian forces in Lebanon numbered about 14,000 at the time of Hariri’s murder but have since begun a redeployment, leaving north Lebanon and the mountains over Beirut for points further east on their way home across the border.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (newsweb sites) described the Syrian pledge as “positive” but said Washington would continue to press for full compliance with UN Resolution 1559, approved last September.

In an indication of the diplomatic difficulties that lie ahead, Syrian-backed Lebanese President Emile Lahoud insisted Sunday that the date of a final pullout would be determined by Lebanese and Syrian authorities.

But Syrian Expatriates Minister Bussaina Shaaban told CNN Sunday that Syrian forces would likely be out of Lebanon before legislative elections there that are in principle expected to take place before the end of May.

“I think the troops will meet a very fast timetable,” he said.

Monday’s rally will in effect be a response to a huge demonstration Sunday in the southern Lebanese city of Nabatiyeh, where 200,000 to 300,000 people turned out to denounce the UN pullout resolution, seen as gross foreign interference, and to express gratitude to Syria for its role in Lebanon.

That was followed here Sunday night by a gathering of 10,000 opposition supporters demanding the truth behind Hariri’s assassination. Participants spelled out “truth” in Arabic with their bodies in a candlelight protest that began at nightfall.

The demonstrations and counter-demonstrations since Hariri’s death have rattled the government, with Lahoud warning that if continued they could lead to “catastrophe” in a country that has already been ravaged by factional fighting.

The assassination also plunged Lebanon into political crisis, forcing the resignation February 28 of Prime Minister Omar Karameh in the face of public fury.

But Karameh was called back to the premiership by Lahoud 10 days later, only to find his appeal for a government of national unity rebuffed by the opposition.

Karameh has acknowledged that bringing the opposition on board will be difficult if not impossible. He is nonetheless scheduled to begin consultations with MPs on a national unity cabinet this week.