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Beirut protestors assail economic reforms

Lebanon's main labor union, backed by the Hezbollah-led opposition that aims to boost its campaign to topple the government, demonstrated Tuesday against the government's economic reform plan.

Beirut protestors assail economic reforms

More than 1,000 demonstrators responded to the CGTL labor confederation's call to protest against a cabinet-approved plan to heal the beleaguered economy by raising value-added tax and privatizing key electricity and mobile phone sectors.

The demonstrators gathered near the tax department of the finance ministry and were met by a heavy security presence, with army and police blocking off streets leading to residential neighborhoods in central Beirut.

The number of security personnel, many equipped with anti-riot gear, rivaled the demonstrator turnout in a sign of the authorities' intent to contain the demonstrations and avoid any street clashes such as the one that killed a Shiite opposition supporter in December.

Protestors shouted patriotic slogans and carried union banners, Lebanese flags, the yellow flags of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, and the orange banners of the Christian opposition movement led by former general Michel Aoun.

"I don't belong to any union but I support any party that wants to improve people's lives," said Aoun supporter Roland Darghasieh, 26, adding that he was unemployed and came to protest against tax hikes.

"My rent is $300 a month and my last salary was $400," he said.

The opposition, which has been holding a sit-in protest outside the government's main offices in central Beirut since December 1, has lent its support to the labor union's call to protest as part of an escalation in its own efforts to force a change in the government.

A second protest was to be held Wednesday in front of the energy ministry, CGTL leader Ghassan Ghosn said.

The daily Al Akhbar, which is close to the Damascus-backed opposition, said that plans include a steady rise in protests that are to last "three weeks, culminating in a general strike."

The leftist As Safir daily described the labor protest as "an instrument in the political battle, under the banner of socio-economic demands."

The Western-backed government headed by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora last week approved an economic reform plan to present to an international aid conference aimed at revitalizing Lebanon's economy following the July-August war between Israel and Hezbollah.

The so-called Paris III conference, aimed at stimulating growth and encouraging investment, is to be held in the French capital January 25, and is supported by the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations.

But the Hezbollah-led opposition has seized upon the cost of the social reforms proposed by Siniora's administration and accused those in power of sparking the economic crisis that has seen Lebanon plunge $41 billion in debt.

"The government wants to pass its own reform plan without consulting the other parties," Hezbollah former MP Ammar Mussawi, who was among the demonstrators, said.

"The government is using the Paris III [conference] to save its own skin, not to save the Lebanese economy," he said.

The plan approved by Siniora's rump cabinet, which was deserted by six pro-Syrian ministers in November, calls for the privatization of electricity and mobile phone sectors as well as a 2 percent hike in value-added tax (VAT).

Embattled pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud meanwhile said that any cabinet decision, including over the reform package, taken without the ministers who resigned was null and void.

"All decisions made at the meetings chaired by outgoing Prime Minister Fuad Siniora are null and void," said a statement from Lahoud's office. "The cabinet of Siniora no longer exists and has lost its constitutional legitimacy, and therefore is no more the country's executive authority."

The opposition wants the creation of a national unity government in which it is granted a blocking one-third minority.

The anti-Syrian parliamentary majority elected in 2005 has accused the opposition of seeking to "paralyze the economy" and "prevent the creation of an international tribunal" into the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.

An ongoing UN probe has implicated Syrian officials and their Lebanese accomplices in the seafront bomb blast that killed Hariri and 22 others.

Source : AFP

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