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Mass Protest Again Floods Downtown Beirut


Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese protesters clogged the streets of downtown Beirut Sunday in another mass demonstration aimed at bringing down the government. VOA's Challiss McDonough has more from the Lebanese capital.

Opposition members flooded into central Beirut from all directions, wearing the bright orange, yellow and green banners of their respective parties, heeding the call by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

The demonstration seemed nearly as large as the massive protest march that launched the anti-government street campaign nine days earlier.

Since then, several thousand people, mostly pro-Syrian Hezbollah supporters, have been camping in tents outside the main government building known as the Grand Serail, demanding what they call a national unity government, in which the opposition would hold enough seats to veto decisions.

Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, who is accused of being a western puppet, says the opposition is trying to stage a coup d'etat. He has repeatedly and angrily refused to give in to their demands, saying his government is legitimate and democratically elected.

But the streets outside the prime minister's office, protester Ahmed Ali, a high school teacher from the southern port city of Tyre, sounded confident of victory.

"We will see who has the longer breath, who has the longer patience, the will of the people or the will of this man and his gang," said Ahmed Ali.

The protesters have heaped scorn on Prime Minister Siniora, much of it intensely rancorous and personal. They accuse him of taking orders from the American ambassador, and of conspiring with Israel during the July and August war - charges Mr. Siniora vehemently denies.

The opposition leaders are not technically calling for the prime minister to step down, just to change the composition of his cabinet.

But on the streets, Mr. Siniora's downfall has become a central goal of the demonstrators. The protesters say they want him out of the Grand Serail.

Ahmed Ali issued a warning.

"He must take the story, the moral of the Shah of Iran, who fell down by the people," he said. "He stayed about one year, one year saying 'I am the king, I am the king.' At last, America didn't help him."

Earlier in the day on Sunday, thousands of people gathered in a large exhibition hall to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of newspaper editor and vocal anti-Syrian lawmaker Gebran Tueni, who was killed by a car bomb on December 12, 2005.

Notably absent from the somber ceremony were most members of the government, including the prime minister. He and several of his cabinet ministers have refused to leave the Grand Serail since the killing of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel nearly three weeks ago. They say they fear their lives are in danger.

They played a video featuring a famous speech by Tueni, in which he said "In the name of God We, Muslims and Christians, pledge that united we shall remain, to the end of time, to better defend our Lebanon."

In the video, the speech was cut short by an explosion. Then Tueni's voice started again, only to be cut off again, and then begin again. The symbolism was clear - Lebanon's anti-Syrian voices will not be silenced by violence.

There are glimmers of hope that some kind of solution to the political standoff is in the works. An Arab League mediator was expected to return to Beirut on Monday, and it appeared possible that a compromise was on the horizon.

Both sides of the political divide have said they are open to negotiations, but in the meantime their rhetoric has remained defiant and angry.

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