Protesters take to Beirut streets

Defying a ban on protests, about 10,000 people demonstrated against Syrian interference in Lebanon this morning, shortly before parliament was to debate a motion of confidence in the government.

Defying a ban on protests, about 10,000 people demonstrated against Syrian interference in Lebanon this morning, shortly before parliament was to debate a motion of confidence in the government.

Hundreds of soldiers and police blocked off Beirut’s central Martyrs’ Square, but there was no violence, even as more and more protesters managed to evade the cordon and join the demonstration.

Protest leaders urged their followers not to provoke the security forces, who refrained from trying to disperse the illegal demonstration.

Opposition legislators aim to bring down the pro-Syrian government of Prime Minister Omar Karami in Monday’s confidence debate.

It will be the first time the legislature discusses the February 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed with 16 other people in a massive bomb blast.

Many Lebanese say Karami’s administration and Syria were behind the attack – a charge both governments deny. Opposition lawmakers are expected to demand details about the attack on Hariri’s motorcade.

Karami told Al-Arabiya TV that his government “may or may not survive” the debate. As he spoke, a large crowd demonstrated against his government in Martyrs’ Square. Some protesters seemed to have slept in the square, as several tents could be seen this morning Monday morning.

The assassination of Hariri has intensified world and Lebanese opposition pressure for Syria to withdraw its 15,000 troops from Lebanon.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield is scheduled to meet Lebanon’s foreign minister today to press the message.

Yesterday he reiterated Washington’s demand that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon “as soon as possible.”

Syria said last week it would redeploy its troops eastward toward its border, but they would not leave Lebanon. There has been no sign of the redeployment having begun.

Hariri was seen as quietly opposing Syria’s control over Lebanon and had been expected to stand in parliamentary elections in April or May against Karami.

“We want the truth. Who killed Rafik Hariri?” an opposition leader, Walid Jumblatt, said on Hariri’s Future television last night. He urged the people to “go down today, tomorrow, for a month or two months until the regime falls”.

But Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh banned protests on grounds of “supreme national interests and maintaining national peace.” He ordered all security forces to take ”all measures necessary to maintain security and order and prevent demonstrations and gatherings”.

Security forces did manage to stop protesters from reaching the Prime Minister’s office, which was cordoned off by soldiers, anti-tank obstacles and barbed wire.

Hundreds of troops, many in armoured personnel carriers, set up roadblocks at entrances to central Beirut, turning back flag-waving teenagers, reducing traffic to a trickle, and making the city appear as if it were under siege.

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