Page last updated at 23:13 GMT, Thursday, 14 February 2008

Rival events reveal Lebanon divisions

By Mike Sergeant
BBC News, Beirut

Crowds at Hariri anniversary
Thousands braved heavy rain to remember former Rafik Hariri

It was a day of high emotion at events marking the assassinations of two very different men.

The former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh may have been political opposites, but they met their end in similar ways.

They were both killed by car bombs. Mr Hariri in 2005, Mughniyeh on Tuesday evening in Damascus.

To have two such big high profile events in Beirut on the same day was unprecedented, and potentially explosive.

The Lebanese army and internal security forces were not taking any chances. At dawn thousands of troops marched onto the streets of the capital.

Show of force

The whole of the centre of Beirut was sealed off ahead of the rally to mark three years since Mr Hariri was killed. Tanks hovered on street corners, as troops nervously watched the trickle of demonstrators become a flood.

Politicians from Lebanon's governing anti-Syrian coalition had been building up to this event for weeks. Despite the driving rain, thousands of demonstrators poured into Martyr's Square, which holds Mr Hariri's tomb.

Imad Mughniyeh's coffin is borne by Hezbollah fighters
To supporters of the militant group Hezbollah Mughniyeh was a hero
The organisers claimed the turnout was more than a million. Even if it was only tens of thousands, it was still quite a display. A sea of Lebanese flags filled the centre of the city in an impressive show of force.

Most of the people who came blame Syria for the assassination of their former prime minister. They still have one message for Damascus: stay out of Lebanese politics.

Lebanon, however, remains a country divided - along religious lines, and between pro- and anti-Syrian groups. Those divisions were clearly on display in Beirut on Thursday.

Perhaps the appalling weather dampened emotions a little, and helped to avert violence. But despite the cold wind and the incessant rain, supporters of the rival factions were out to prove a point.

'Open war'

Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria, had much less time to prepare for its mass gathering in the southern suburbs. The news of Imad Mughniyeh's death was only confirmed on Wednesday morning. But Hezbollah knew that its response would be closely watched in the Arab world and beyond.

The mourners came holding umbrellas and the yellow flags of Hezbollah. Military music played as the crowds lined the streets.

Undated photograph of Imad Mughniyeh released by Hezbollah
Mughniyeh was wanted in connection with a series of attacks
Mughniyeh was described by the US and Israel as one of the world's leading terrorists, but to Hezbollah and its followers, he was a hero. The mourners chanted slogans and punched the air in support of their leader Hassan Nasrallah.

For security reasons, Nasrallah was not there in person, but on a video link he blamed Israel for the assassination and vowed revenge.

It was an impassioned performance, which his supporters eagerly devoured. A declaration of "open war" against Israel met with chants and shouts, and there was celebratory gunfire when the speech came to an end.

It may simply have been the tough rhetoric one might expect at such a highly charged occasion.

Israel says it was not responsible for Mughniyeh's assassination, but is taking precautions. Extra security is in place at its embassies, and other possible Israeli targets around the world.

In the end, the soaked demonstrators at both events trudged home without a confrontation. There does not seem to be the appetite in Lebanon at the moment for full scale violence. But passions are certainly running high in this deeply divided country.

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