Protesters camp in streets as Beckett visits Beirut

The Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, became entangled in Lebanon's worsening political crisis yesterday as she made a short visit to the country to support the embattled government of the Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora.

After Friday's huge anti-government rally, thousands of Hizbollah supporters remained camped out in central Beirut. Most did not even notice Mrs Beckett slip past their camps and into government headquarters.

"She shouldn't have come," said 27-year-old Ali when told of the visit. "Please, can you ask the British and the Americans to stop interfering in our business?" Thirty-six-year- old Mohammad was one of a crowd of young men yelling anti-Siniora slogans towards the building where Mrs Beckett's meeting with Mr Siniora took place.

"If she really wants to help this country, then please take Siniora with you and leave us alone," he said.

Inside, at a press conference after meeting Mr Siniora, she emphasised Britain's support and promised to continue diplomatic efforts on his behalf, "so Lebanon can continue and return to being the tolerant and independent democracy that you are".

She rejected a suggestion her visit could be seen as a provocation amid Lebanon's politically charged atmosphere. "I don't think the demonstrators are here because I am," she said. "My trip was already planned and the demonstrators have their own reason, presumably, for being here."

Hizbollah and its allies are demanding the immediate resignation of the US-backed Siniora government, and new elections. They accuse the current government of being illegal and unconstitutional after the resignation three weeks ago of six Shia ministers, leaving the government without any representatives of the community. The US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, has already called the Hizbollah demonstrations "part of the Iran-Syria inspired coup".

Sheikh Khodor Nouredden of the Hizbollah political council retorted: "We don't care for his speech. Yesterday, it was clear to anyone in the world that we were the majority on the street. So if they want democracy in Lebanon, they should listen to us."

Meanwhile, the Shia party's supporters were vowing to continue their open-air vigil until their demands are met. Hizbollah and its coalition allies have set up tents, water tanks and toilets for the thousands of supporters who remain camped out in the city's main squares. "It was cold last night, but it was a good experience," said Kamal, a 23-year-old university student who shared his tent with eight others. "We took shifts to sleep and then we swapped with our friends."

After her meeting with Mr Siniora, Mrs Beckett left Beirut for a visit to the United Nations peacekeeping headquarters in south Lebanon. Sheik Nouredden had some parting advice for her. "Anyone going with the Americans today will lose in the future," he warned. "We will have a new Middle East, but it won't be the one the Americans want."

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