Lebanese mark Hariri assassination
Tens of thousands of flag-waving Lebanese gathered in Beirut's main square Sunday to mark the fifth anniversary of the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, a killing that sparked a cascade of political turmoil in the Middle East.
Turnout from across the country was huge, but estimated to be less than in previous years, perhaps reflecting a serious rift within the ranks of the pro-Western ruling coalition headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated prime minister.
This year's anniversary also comes after Saad Hariri reconciled with neighbouring Syria, whom he has openly accused of killing his father in the 2005 truck bombing. The 40-year-old Hariri now heads a unity government that includes Syrian-backed politicians who had been part of the political opposition.
Unlike previous years, when leaders' speeches were peppered with attacks and insults against Syria, Hariri this year spoke of a new stage in Lebanon's relations with its neighbour.
"In all truth, honesty and responsibility, I am keen on keeping this window open, and on building a new era in Lebanese-Syrian relations, from one sovereign, free and independent state to another," he said.
'We miss you'
Many in the crowd carried banners that read: "We miss you."
"I am here to say Rafik Hariri did not die for nothing … we will continue to fight for our independence," said Zeina al-Sidani, who was carrying a red, white and green Lebanese flag in one hand and a red rose in her other. She said the rose was "for Lebanon's martyrs on Valentine's Day."
Rafik Hariri had close ties with Western leaders as well as with Syria and was credited with helping rebuild Lebanon's capital after the 1975-1990 civil war. In the last few months before his assassination, however, he had tried to limit Damascus' influence over Lebanon, and many accused Syria of involvement in his killing.
Syria denies those accusations.
Hariri's death was followed by the rise of a U.S.- and Saudi-backed alliance that became known as the March 14 coalition, named after a day of massive anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon dubbed the "Cedar Revolution."
The demonstrations eventually led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country, ending a 29-year military presence.
No one charged in death
An international tribunal based in the Netherlands was set up a year ago to prosecute the killers, but no one has been charged and there are frustrations and concerns that the case is languishing.
Two high-level departures from the court in recent weeks have increased the worries of Hariri's backers, but the tribunal's head said during a visit to Beirut this month that the resignations were "normal" and that the investigation is on track.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reaffirmed the United Nations' commitment to the tribunal's efforts, "so as to bring those responsible to justice and end impunity in Lebanon," spokesman Martin Nesirky said this week at the UN's New York headquarters.
Sunday's rally in Beirut's Martyrs' Square was an attempt by Saad Hariri and his allies to regain some of the political momentum lost after a major rift within its ranks.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt — once a key figure in the March 14 alliance and a vehement critic of Syria who even called for Syrian President Bashar Assad's overthrow — quit the Western-backed coalition in August and moved closer to the rival Hezbollah-led camp.
He now calls for "distinctive relations" with Syria and says he's prepared to also visit Damascus, the Syrian capital.
Jumblatt's defection, as well as Hariri's landmark visit to Syria in December, gave the impression of a weakening alliance, and Sunday's rally was seen as an occasion to try to regroup.
Some in the crowd in central Beirut expressed disappointment with Hariri's policy of reconciliation with Syria.
One group carried a large placard reading: "What have you done with my vote," reflecting frustration with Hariri for forming a government that includes members of the rival Hezbollah-led opposition, despite winning parliamentary elections last year.