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Lebanon’s two contrasting rallies

world Updated: Feb 14, 2008 23:18 IST

Hundreds of thousands of government supporters converged on central Beirut on Thursday for the third anniversary of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri’s assassination, as just miles away Lebanon’s opposition Hezbollah prepared to bury a top commander slain by a car bomb.

Amid fears of clashes between rival pro- and anti-Syrian factions, army troops and security forces were deployed in force in the capital. The factions have faced off repeatedly in recent weeks.

A sea of people gathered under pouring rain in Martyrs' Square in central Beirut, where Hariri is buried, waving Lebanese flags and photos of the slain leader as well as other politicians and figures killed in the past three years. As the rally got underway, members of Hariri's family and the ruling coalition inaugurated a square at the site of his death on the Beirut seafront.

They also unveiled a bronze statue, a sculpture in the form of a flame and an obelisk bearing inscriptions about his accomplishments and sayings.

Politicians meanwhile gave fiery speeches demanding an end to the country's presidential deadlock and accusing Syria of meddling in Lebanese politics.

“I say to those encouraging an escalation that Lebanon will not be transformed into another Iraq,” Sheikh Ali al-Amin, the Shiite Mufti of the southern city of Tyre told the crowd from behind bullet-proof glass.

Lebanon has been without a president since last November when pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud stepped down at the end of his term. A subsequent power struggle between the ruling majority anti-Syrian faction and the Hezbollah-led opposition has left a continuing vacuum.

Nassib Lahoud, a former ambassador to the US and a member of the ruling majority, said his side would not budge from its demands for the election of a president without outside interference, followed by the formation of a national unity government.

In the city's Shia southern suburbs, Hezbollah was preparing to bury Imad Mughnieh, one of its top commanders killed in a car bombing on Tuesday which the movement blamed on Israel.

The Jewish state denied responsibility although politicians welcomed his death and a US State Department spokesman said the world would be "a better place" without him.

Meanwhile, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sent his condolences to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, hailing Mughnieh as a "great man".

"It should make the Lebanese proud to have given the world such great men in the fields of seeking freedom and fighting cruelty," he said.