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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A Year After PM RAFIQ HARIRI Assassination

Tens of thousands of flag-waving Lebanese massed in the heart of Beirut Wednesday to mark the murder two years ago of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, with security high after deadly bus bombings.

Behind bulletproof glass, a succession of leaders blamed Damascus for the Hariri assassination and other attacks in the past two years but appealed for unity to end a deep political crisis between pro- and anti-Syrian factions.

Troops and tanks were out in force bracing for possible violence as the Hariri rally was taking place next to the site where pro-Damascus opposition rivals have been holding an around-the-clock sit-in since December 1.

"We are here to extend our hand to all Lebanese for dialogue and national unity," said Hariri's son Saad Hariri, leader of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority that took power in 2005.

Tens of thousands of people carrying candles, flags, and balloons in the blue color of Saad's political party poured into Martyrs' Square where Hariri's tomb lies at the foot of a great mosque.

The anniversary commemorations come at a time of acute crisis in a country still riven by political and confessional divisions and destabilized by a wave of attacks against Damascus critics.

Lebanon's government has been paralyzed since November when six pro-Syrian ministers quit, triggering the launch of a Hezbollah-led campaign to oust the cabinet of Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

The political feuding has arisen in part over the government's backing for a UN tribunal to try suspects in the Hariri killing, a move opposed by Syria and its allies in Lebanon.

"Despite the assassinations and the terrorism ... we will find justice," said Saad Hariri, who inherited his father's business empire but who spends much of his time abroad because of security concerns.

Prominent Druze leader MP Walid Jumblatt launched a virulent attack on Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, branding him "the dictator of Damascus ... a savage ... an Israeli product, a liar ... and a criminal."

Tensions in Lebanon were exacerbated after three people were killed Tuesday in twin bus bombings in a primarily Christian area, an attack that anti-Syrian figures said was designed to disrupt the commemorations.

It was the latest in a series of attacks blamed on Syria, which stands accused of orchestrating the massive bomb blast that killed Hariri and 22 others on the Beirut seafront February 14, 2005.

A UN probe has directly implicated senior Syrian officials over the murder although Damascus has strongly denied any involvement.

"We will not surrender and we will not be scared ... we will pursue the criminals until the end of time," Christian leader Samir Geagea said.

The government had declared Wednesday a day of national mourning with government and educational institutions and businesses shut.

Roads leading to Beirut were clogged by convoys of vehicles, with people having to walk the last five kilometers (three miles) to reach Martyr's Square.

Security forces have erected a barbed-wire fence in Beirut to separate the rival camps, which engaged in street fights last month that left seven dead.

"The regime of Bashar Al Assad is trying ... to destroy Lebanon ... with massacres, the latest of which was the terrorist massacre yesterday," said social affairs minister Nayla Moawad.

Anger at the murder forced Syria to end three decades of military domination of its smaller neighbor in April 2005 and bringing an anti-Syrian movement to power.

Leaders from both sides have called for calm and said Tuesday's bus attacks were all the more reason to work toward ending divisions in a country still scarred by the 1975-90 civil war.

"We want to live. All Lebanese people should rise up to stop this cycle of terrorism," said Nadia Saikali, a housewife from Beirut's Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh.

The anniversary of the Hariri killing also falls six months to the day since the end of a devastating 34-day war that broke out after Israel retaliated against Hezbollah for capturing two soldiers.

Hezbollah claimed that it won a "divine victory" over Israel, which has admitted that it failed to achieve its main targets in the war - retrieve two soldiers captured by guerrillas and halt Hezbollah rocket fire.

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