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Saturday, 10 June, 2000, 21:40 GMT 22:40 UK
Lebanon mourns 'great Arab leader'
Syrian checkpoint in Beirut
Syria has a long history of involvement with Lebanon
Lebanon has announced a seven-day period of mourning following the death of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.

State and private television stations have been playing classical music, recitations from the Koran and clips from Syrian state television.

Lebanese Prime Minister Selim al-Hoss described the veteran leader's death as a "momentous calamity which strikes Lebanon in the heart".

A great Arab leader who spent his life struggling in defence of Arab causes and carried the nation's concerns in his mind

Lebanese Prime Minister Selim al-Hoss

Elie al-Furzli, deputy speaker of Lebanon's parliament, described Assad's death as "a major event for us, for Syrians and for the Arab nation" and a time of "great, great sadness".

Flags are flying at half mast above all Lebanese official institutions and buildings.

Although Beirut has so far remained quiet, automatic weapon fire and explosions have been heard across the Syrian-garrisoned city of Baalbek in eastern Lebanon.

Lebanese residents were mainly responsible, according to the AFP news agency.

Mixed opinions

Opinion in Lebanon is mixed about Assad. Some saw him as a great leader who stood up to Israel and supported Lebanon's guerrilla war against Israel's long-running occupation of the south.
Lebanon and Syria
1949: Lebanese coup promoting union with Syria fails

1961: Second pro-Syria coup fails

1975: Civil war starts between Muslims and Maronite Christians in Lebanon

1976: Syria establishes its presence, with the blessings from the Arab League.

1978: Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon

2000: Israel abandons 'security zone' in south Lebanon

But others, notably from the minority Christian community, have long resented Assad's control over Lebanon.

Syria has a long history of involvement with Lebanon.

In 1977, President Assad sent troops to put an end to the first phase of the country's civil war. Some 35,000 are still there, strongly resented by many.

All Lebanon's political appointments, together with foreign and defence policy decisions are controlled by Syria.

New fears

Lebanon has for many years effectively acted as a buffer zone between Syria and Israel.

However, with Israel's recent withdrawal from areas it occupied in South Lebanon, the big question in the wake of the pullout has been whether Assad would keep a tight rein on the Hezbollah guerrillas who led the fight to drive Israel out of Lebanon.
Hezbollah guerillas
Hezbollah: Questions now surround their role

Itamar Rabinovich, a former ambassador to the United States who served as head of Israel's earlier negotiations with Syria, said: "The belief that quiet will reign in Lebanon after the withdrawal from there depends on the desire of Syria to influence to ensure that quiet and the stability."

Speaking on Israeli television, he added: "Now, as a result of Assad's death, there are question marks over both the desire and the ability of Syria to keep fighting from breaking out."

Israel has already made clear that any renewal of Hezbollah's cross-border attacks would bring an extremely harsh response, possibly targeting Syrian troops in Lebanon - and raising the risk of a larger regional conflagration.

See also:

05 Jan 00 | Middle East
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