Blair Faces Angry Reception in Lebanon

The Associated Press
Monday, September 11, 2006; 6:48 AM

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Hundreds of people protested British Prime Minister Tony Blair's arrival in Beirut on Monday, angry over his perceived backing of Israel's bombardment of Lebanon.

The parliament speaker, a close ally of Hezbollah who was supposed to meet with Blair, left town in an apparent snub to the first British leader to visit Lebanon.

The country's most senior Shiite Muslim cleric said he held Blair responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Lebanese civilians during the 34-day war because Britain supported the United States in refusing to demand a quick cease-fire.

While Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora greeted Blair at the airport, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in central Beirut. The two leaders road into the city in a 22-vehicle motorcade, with hundreds of security forces guarding the route.

"Blair, you are not welcome in Lebanon," read a banner carried by protesters. "In the name of the Lebanese people: Thank you for destroying our homes, neighborhoods and memories."

Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah said Sunday that Blair was a "killer of children, women and the elderly" and should be declared "persona non grata" in Lebanon.

The As-Safir daily described Blair as "the ugly Briton" and called his invitation to Beirut "a political mistake that could have been avoided." Another daily, Al Balad, warned riots might erupt.

Hundreds of Lebanese troops and police, backed by armored carriers, sealed off the main squares in downtown Beirut, setting up roadblocks to keep demonstrators and cars away.

A protest had been planned in front of the government's seat, but the police authorized it about half a mile away, beyond the sight of Blair's meeting with Saniora.

Blair helped nudge forward stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace during talks in Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah over the weekend.

He had planned to meet with Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri before heading home later Monday. But Berri, a Shiite, left the country two days earlier on a private visit, an apparent snub to Blair.

Blair was not expected to meet with President Emile Lahoud, a pro-Syrian whom Western nations have refused to deal with in the last year. Syria is accused of being one of Hezbollah's chief backers, along with Iran.

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