Blair's visit to Beirut sparks backlash

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The Independent Online

A young woman protester managed to disrupt a press conference by Tony Blair at the end of a Lebanon trip which was boycotted by political leaders of the powerful Shia community.

Mr Blair's arrival in Beirut provoked a huge demonstration. His motorcade swept past hundreds of heavily armed police a nd troops, who were out in the streets to keep the protesters under control. A large part of central Beirut was sealed off with barbed wire and cement barriers.

Slipping through the security net to interrupt his joint press conference with the Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, an Irish peace activist, Caoimhe Butterly, unfurled a banner attacking Israel and declared: "This is an insult to the thousands of Lebanese who have died as a result of Blair's policies."

Far from condemning her actions, Mr Siniora emphasised that Lebanon was a democracy that tolerated freedom of expression. Mr Siniora praised Mr Blair's role as a mediator and said the damage inflicted on Lebanon during the conflict might have been even worse but for his intervention.

Mr Blair defended his role in the conflict by insisting that peace could only come to the Middle East through an agreement signed by both Israel and Palestine, and that it was necessary to talk to both sides.

Mr Blair had been due to meet the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, who acts as mediator between Hizbollah and the government. But Downing Street staff had to admit that the meeting was off. Mr Berri, who was in Geneva over the weekend, had not thought it worth his while to return to Beirut for the appointment. Lebanon's ministers for labour and energy, who are aligned with Hizbollah, were also publicly refusing to meet Mr Blair. The Shia boycott follows Sunday's warning by the senior cleric Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah that Mr Blair was not welcome.

Mr Blair promised £22.3m in aid towards repairing war damage estimated at £4.8bn, as well as £20m towards the cost of the UN peacekeeping force. HMS York will help to patrol the coast.