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Lebanon opposition to escalate anti-govt protests

By Yara Bayoumy
Reuters
Monday, January 8, 2007; 9:52 AM

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon's opposition on Monday threw its weight behind the main labor union's call for a sit-in on Tuesday, breathing new life into a five-week long campaign to topple the government and promised more protests.

The renewed protests will put more pressure on the Western-backed government to yield to demands to give the Hezbollah-led opposition a decisive say in a national unity government, or call early elections.

"The opposition ... adopts the call to protest in front of the VAT office tomorrow on Tuesday at 11 a.m. (0900 GMT) and calls on all Lebanese to participate in it," said a statement from the opposition read by former minister Talal Arsalan.

"The opposition has also decided to escalate its popular movements and turn Tuesday's protest into a daily escalation that extends to all the ministries and public facilities to achieve all its demands."

There was no immediate comment from the government.

The Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, is the driving force of the opposition, which also includes Christian and some Druze and Sunni figures.

MORE PROTESTS

On Saturday, the Lebanese Confederation of Trade Unions called on Lebanese to join a sit-in on Tuesday outside a Finance Ministry office in Beirut to protest against Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's economic reform program.

"Every day there will be something new ... We will not exempt any ministry or any facility after today," Christian leader Michel Aoun said after the opposition meeting at his residence.

A political source close to the opposition said there would be a protest at the Energy and Water Ministry on Wednesday and another one at the Information Ministry on Thursday.

Last week, the government unveiled economic reforms to be presented to an international donors' conference in Paris this month which Beirut hopes will bring financial help to an economy reeling from the July-August war with Israel. The reform plan included tax reforms, as well as raising VAT rates.

The main labor union rejected the tax increases as well as privatization efforts which it says would take away workers' rights.

The reforms, which aim to boost economic growth and ease the burden of Lebanon's massive public debt, will be presented at the January 25 "Paris 3" conference.

Protesters have camped outside Siniora's offices in central Beirut since December 1 in an opposition campaign to topple the government, but Siniora, a Sunni Muslim backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia, has resisted the opposition's demands.

The latest move in the opposition's campaign comes after the failure of another diplomatic attempt to break the deadlock. The stand-off has fueled tension between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims.

Economy and Trade Minister Sami Haddad said on Sunday the protest actions were politically motivated and would only further damage the economy.

"This program is everybody's program, it's not the program of the majority against the opposition," he said.

© 2007 Reuters