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Middle East: Massive Anti-Syrian Protest In Beirut Follows Pro-Syrian Rallies

The bomb blast in Beirut that killed Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on 14 February (file photo) A rally on 14 March against Syria's military presence in Lebanon was the largest opposition protest in Beirut since the death of former Prime Minister Rafiq Harari one month ago. Correspondents say the demonstration appeared to have been larger than a pro-Syria rally last week that had gathered up to half a million supporters of Lebanon's Hizballah movement.

Prague, 14 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Flag-bedecked cars, horns honking, and young organizers struggling to keep order as crowds move toward Martyr's Square in central Beirut.

Beirut was swarming with activity today as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators poured into the Lebanese capital to protest Syria's nearly 30-year military presence in the country.

Today's rally was seen as a chance for the opposition to respond to enormous pro-Syria demonstrations in Lebanon.

Correspondents estimate 200,000 to 300,000 had attended a pro-Syria demonstration yesterday in the southern Lebanese city of Nabitieyh. And a week ago, an estimated half-million Hizballah supporters gathered in Beirut to express support and gratitude to Syria for its role in stabilizing Lebanon after its bloody civil war.

But today, an Associated Press correspondent in Beirut was reporting that the anti-Syria gathering "dwarfed" all pro-Syria rallies during the last month. A correspondent from Agence France Press estimated today's crowd at about 800,000. Organizers claim there were 1 million people in the crowd.

A large number of banks and offices in Lebanon shut down at noon, giving employees the afternoon off so they could attend the demonstration. Schools and universities also ended classes at midday.

As the crowd swelled in the city center, chants could be heard from demonstrators calling for freedom, national unity, and the withdrawal of Syrian troops.

Many waved the red, white, and green Lebanese flag near the grave of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri -- who was assassinated on 14 February. Today's rally also was called in Hariri's memory.

Speakers at the rally have demanded a transparent international investigation into Hariri's death. They say they want the results of a truthful investigation to be revealed to the public.

In Lebanon, Hariri's assassination is widely blamed on Syria. Analysts say the size of the crowd today shows how much his death has energized opposition efforts to force a Syrian withdrawal.

Syria has denied involvement in the assassination. On 12 March, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave a commitment to a UN envoy that Damascus will conduct a full withdrawal of troops and intelligence agents in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1559.