Jubilation in Beirut after pro-Syrian government resigns

The embattled Prime Minister of Lebanon, Omar Karami, announced the resignation of his government yesterday. The surprise decision was greeted with a roar of triumph from a crowd gathered in Beirut's Martyrs' Square to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops.

The embattled Prime Minister of Lebanon, Omar Karami, announced the resignation of his government yesterday. The surprise decision was greeted with a roar of triumph from a crowd gathered in Beirut's Martyrs' Square to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops.

In scenes reminiscent of Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" last year, thousands of anti-government demonstrators and strikers had flocked into central Beirut to call for Mr Karami's removal. Following the announcement, which was broadcast on big screens around the square, protesters ­ whipped up by opposition politicians ­ turned their sights on the Lebanese President, Emile Lahoud, and called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops.

"For the first time the government faced national unity and popular pressure at the same time," a political analyst, Jihad Khazen, said. "It had very little support from the beginning. It simply couldn't take it."

Mr Lahoud quickly accepted Mr Karami's resignation and asked him to continue in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed. This will involve the appointment, by Mr Lahoud with parliamentary consultation, of a new prime minister who will then appoint a cabinet which must be ratified by the various parliamentary blocks and withstand a parliamentary vote of confidence.

The US met Mr Karami's resignation with cautious approval. The White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters the event "represents an opportunity for the Lebanese people to have a government that is truly representative of their country's diversity".

Yesterday's events marked the culmination of two weeks of protests and political manoeuvres that have shaken Lebanon and its Syrian-backed government since the assassination of former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, on 14 February.

Aware of the strong momentum, opposition speakers urged demonstrators to stay put and push for more. Many Lebanese wore the red and white scarves adopted by the opposition in what has been termed a peaceful "independence uprising".

However in Mr Karami's home town of Tripoli, scores of pro-government demonstrators, some of whom were armed, stormed the houses of two opposition politicians, while a 22-year-old Karami supporter was shot dead in the rioting.

Mr Karami's government had been expected to use its sizeable parliamentary majority to win a no-confidence vote that was to close the debate on Mr Hariri's killing. But the protests against the government and its Syrian backers were unprecedented in their scale and scope. Banks, schools and businesses closed in a general strike the opposition called to coincide with the debate.

A government ban on protests increased the tension, but thousands defied it, some by camping out overnight in central Beirut. Hundreds of Lebanese soldiers with assault rifles had fanned out in central Beirut and barred roads to the scene of the demonstrations and to parliament with metal barricades and barbed wire. But protesters who pushed through met little resistance.

"Today the government fell. Tomorrow, it's the one huddled in Anjar," the opposition leader, Elias Atallah, told the cheering crowd, referring to the Syrian intelligence chief based in the eastern Lebanese town of Anjar. He said the opposition will continue its actions until all demands are met. The protesters went further, shouting: "Lahoud, your turn is coming!" mixed with chants of "Syria Out" and "freedom, sovereignty, independence."

Mr Lahoud's six-year term was renewed in September by parliament, under apparent Syrian pressure, in defiance of a UN resolution demanding Lebanon hold presidential elections, the withdrawal of Syrian troops and an end to Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs.

"The battle is not over. It is just beginning. We want to know who killed Prime Minister Hariri," Faris Saeed, an opposition legislator, said, addressing the crowd.

The crowd responded loudly and in unison: "Syria! Syria!"

Many Lebanese accuse Syria and Mr Karami's government of involvement in the bombing that killed Mr Hariri and 16 others, pressing hard in the two weeks since his death for the government to resign and for Syria to withdraw its roughly 15,000 troops.

"The heads of security agencies are responsible for what happened in this country and they must pay," said legislator Ghattas Khoury. "Do not leave this square before they resign."

Analysts raised fears of a return to Lebanon's dark days of the 1975-90 civil war that ravaged the country and killed more than 150,000 people.

"This won't be Ukraine of 2004, but maybe Lebanon of 1975," said Abu Khalil, a Californian academic, referring to the days when Lebanon, sliding into war, was racked by constitutional crises and disputes.

Pushing for Mr Lahoud's resignation could anger Damascus, he warned: "Syria won't support such a scenario, which I think could lead to chaos, particularly as Lahoud has strong support from [Lebanese Shia militant group] Hezbollah, which is also very closely aligned with Syria." A Syrian official source said the resignation was a Lebanese "internal affair".

"The Lebanese people have triumphed through a peaceful and democratic demonstration," Walid Jumblatt, the Druse opposition leader, said from his ancestral home in the mountains where he had been holed up for fear of assassination.

Speaking by telephone to the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, he called for a "neutral government" and rejected a military one to organise parliamentary elections, urging demonstrators not to strike out against Syrian workers and soldiers.

Syria's President, Bashar Assad, said in remarks published yesterday that a Syrian withdrawal depended on a settlement with Israel.

"Under a technical point of view, the withdrawal can happen by the end of the year," Mr Assad told the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica. "But under a strategic point of view, it will only happen if we obtain serious guarantees. In one word: peace."

( Additional reporting by AP)

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