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Lebanon opposition widens anti-government campaign

By Tom Perry
Reuters
Tuesday, January 9, 2007; 9:06 AM

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon's Hezbollah-led opposition took the first step in a wider campaign to topple the Western-backed government on Tuesday, taking part in a protest against economic reforms proposed by the cabinet.

Hundreds of protesters, including opposition activists, waved Lebanese flags outside a Finance Ministry tax office to protest against an increase in value-added tax proposed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government.

The protest was called by the labor union confederation and backed by Hezbollah and its allies, including Christian leader Michel Aoun and the Shi'ite Muslim Amal movement.

Backed by Damascus, the opposition has declared the anti-Syrian cabinet illegitimate and demanded early parliamentary elections and a new electoral law.

Opposition supporters have been camped out in central Beirut since December 1 to press their demands, erecting tents a short distance from the government's headquarters and effectively shutting down the city's commercial heart.

The standoff between the opposition and the government is part of Lebanon's worst political crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war. One opposition protester was killed in December and many Lebanese fear more violence.

"The first thing we want is a clean government," said demonstrator Ralph Khoury, an 18-year-old Aoun supporter at Tuesday's protest.

"We're definitely tired, but our determination is strong," he said, adding that he had slept for 12 nights under canvas in central Beirut at the start of the opposition campaign.

BARRIERS

Hundreds of soldiers and police cordoned off the building housing the tax office. Organizers set up their own cordon between the protesters and the barriers in an apparent attempt to ensure there would be no friction with security forces.

Security forces closed roads leading to the building, which sits at a usually busy intersection. "Siniora is responsible for making Lebanon poor," read one sign held aloft by protesters.

The government says its reform plans, including raising VAT and privatization, will spur economic growth and help ease the burden of Lebanon's $41 billion public debt.

Siniora, who enjoys international support from France, the United States, Saudi Arabia and others, hopes a January 25 donors conference in Paris will yield foreign assistance vital to the reform plan.

The opposition said on Monday it would organize daily protests outside government buildings and public facilities until Siniora gives in to its demands.

Union chief Ghassan Ghosn urged the protesters to gather outside the Energy and Water Ministry on Wednesday.

Lebanese army commander General Michel Suleiman said the military would not allow any disturbances. "The Lebanese army will by no means allow any storming of any public or private institution," Suleiman told As-Safir newspaper.

The role of the army "is to protect the demonstrators... but we will not tolerate any disturbance," he said.

(Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki)

© 2007 Reuters