Monday, February 21, 2005

Syria hints at pullout as Beirut protesters fill streets

Nicholas Blanford in Beirut,
SYRIA hinted yesterday that it may succumb to international pressure and start to withdraw its estimated 14,000 troops from Lebanon.

The signal from Damascus came as tens of thousands of Christians, Druze and Muslims took to the streets of Beirut chanting anti-Syrian slogans in the biggest demonstrations in the Lebanese capital for many years.

President Bush, speaking in Brussels on the first day of his European tour, added to the pressure by demanding that Syria end its occupation of its much smaller neighbour.

Just as the Syrian regime must take stronger action to stop those who support violence and subversion in Iraq, and must end its support for terrorist groups seeking to destroy the hope of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Syria must also end its occupation of Lebanon,” he said.

The European Union joined the United States in demanding that Lebanon’s elections in May be free of foreign interference, and calling for an immediate international investigation into the killing of Rafik Hariri, the billionaire tycoon and former Lebanese Prime Minister, who died in a bomb blast a week ago.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said that over Syria the EU was on exactly the same page as the US”.

The killing of Mr Hariri has turned the spotlight firmly on Syria, with many Lebanese openly blaming Damascus, and Washington all but doing so.

Amr Moussa, the Secretary-General of the Arab League, met President Assad of Syria in Damascus yesterday and afterward quoted Mr Assad as saying that a “Syrian withdrawal is part of Syrian policy and (we) will see steps in this direction very soon”.

Mr Moussa said that the Syrian President hadstressed more than once his firm determination to go on with implementing the Taif agreement and achieve a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon”.

The 1989 agreement was an accord between Lebanon’s factions that helped to end the 1975-90 civil war and outlined Syria’s role in postwar Lebanon. It said that Syria and Lebanon should agree a timetable for Syria’s military to withdraw, but that has not yet happened.

The streets in Beirut’s hotel district near the site where Mr Hariri was killed were filled yesterday with a crowd of people of different faiths chantingSyria out, Syria out!” and “Liberation, Freedom, Independence!One banner read: “Syrial killer.”

Many of them wore red scarves, which, since Mr Hariri’s death, have become a motif of their effort to end Syrian influence in Lebanon.

Some bore a huge placard naming Lebanese politicans who have been assassinated, starting with Kamal Jumblatt, the Druze leader, who was killed near a Syrian army checkpoint in 1977. “Enough is enough,” it proclaimed.

One man, hoisted aloft on the shoulders of a friend, brandished a crucifix in one hand and a Koran in the other. “We are all here today, Muslims and Christians, calling for freedom,” Ala Merai, 23, said.

At 12.55pm, the moment a week ago that Mr Hariri and 15 others died in the bomb blast, the crowd observed a moment’s silence. It ended with a thunderous rendition of the Lebanese national anthem, which echoed among the ruins of the towering Holiday Inn hotel, a lingering reminder of the civil war.

The crowd jammed the streets of central Beirut as they made their way to Mr Hariri’s grave beside Martyrs’ Square. Lebanese army commandos and riot police lined the route.

Dory Chamoun, a leading member of the Opposition, whose father, Camille, was President in the 1950s, said: “I haven’t seen a demonstration where all the Lebanese faiths participated since 1952. We hope this will open up a new era of an independent Lebanon rid of all foreign troops.”

1920: Lebanon and Syria created from Ottoman Empire and placed under French mandate

1946: Lebanon and Syria win independence

1975: Civil war erupts in Lebanon between Christians and Muslims

1976: Syrian troops intervene in Lebanon

1977: Damascus blamed for assassination of Kamal Jumblatt, Druze leader who opposed Syrian intervention

1982: Syrians accused of killing Bashir Gemayel, the Lebanese President, who made deal with Israel against Syria

1989: Damascus blamed for assassination of René Mouawad, the Lebanese President

1989: Taif agreement heralds end to civil war, enshrines Syrian involvement in Lebanon but calls for troop pullout

2000: Israel withdraws all forces from Lebanon

2003: President Bush of US signs Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, demanding Syrian pullout

2004: Washington imposes economic sanctions against Damascus

2004: UN Security Council adopts US-French resolution calling on “foreign forces” to leave Lebanon

2005: Rafik Hariri, former Prime Minister, assassinated after leading calls for Syria to withdraw troops. Killing blamed on Damascus and sparks anti-Syrian demonstrations