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Lebanese Mark Civil War Anniversary

April 13, 2005

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Lebanese marked the 30th anniversary of the start of their country’s 1975-90 civil war with marches, concerts and other symbolic gestures across a rebuilt capital Wednesday, but the goal of a ``day of national unity″ may still be beyond reach as leaders again failed to agree on a government.

Pro-Syrian Prime Minister-designate Omar Karami said he could not form a Cabinet and that he was stepping down. The move seriously undermined chances of holding elections on schedule next month _ and it prompted opposition calls for a new round of street protests to demand a vote be held.

``We must have elections. If we don’t, we’re moving to the unknown. People may decide to return to the squares,″ top opposition figure Walid Jumblatt said, referring to the protests on the main squares in central Beirut. Jumblatt was speaking to reporters in Strasbourg, France, where he was meeting European officials.

The opposition sees the elections, which are supposed to be held by May 31, as their best chance to overturn pro-Syrian politicians’ domination of Parliament as Syria ends its decades-long military presence in Lebanon.

But Lebanon’s political turmoil _ including the failure since Feb. 28 to form a government _ has underlined the sharp divisions that continue to hamper the country’s recovery. Some fear those divisions could again lead to violence.

Political and sectarian tensions exploded into civil war on April 13, 1975, when Christian gunmen killed 27 Palestinians on a bus. The war killed 150,000 people and ravaged a once-prosperous nation of 3.5 million _ and even after the conflict ended in 1990, Lebanese remained divided.

But Christians and Muslims have shown unprecedented unity in the wake of the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which sparked massive protests against Syria. The opposition blames the government and its Syrian backers for the killing, an accusation Beirut and Damascus deny.

The assassination was also the catalyst behind international pressure that forced Syria to order the withdrawal of its army from Lebanon. Syria sent troops in 1976 to help stop the conflict, then became entangled in it and emerged from the war as the dominant power.

About 4,000 Syrian soldiers remain in eastern Lebanon from 14,000 only a month ago, Lebanese officials say. They have set April 30 as the target date for a complete withdrawal.

Late Wednesday, some 250 Syrian soldiers accompanied by tanks and trucks left the towns of al-Qadriyeh and Hawsh al-Harimeh in the Bekaa Valley and crossed into Syria, witnesses said.

To mark the 30th anniversary, Lebanese organized art exhibits, cultural events and concerts, some in Beirut’s rebuilt downtown, which was a notorious killing field during the war.

About 200 people wounded in the conflict, some in wheelchairs, participated.

``Being one of the war victims, I feel more than others that we don’t want war,″ said Yasser Deeb, 36, who uses a wheelchair after being paralyzed by a bullet in the back during inter-Christian fighting in 1987. ``War means destruction and fear. We’ve had enough.″

On the steps of the national museum, Christian and Muslim clerics waved olive branches. Signed pieces of Lebanese flags from across the country were knit together in a symbolic sign of unity in Martyrs’ Square near Hariri’s grave. Students distributed red roses and olive branches.

About 1,500 people gathered at the seaside site where Hariri’s motorcade was blown up, killing him and 19 others, then marched along the corniche.

``We have restored confidence in the country and its youth. There will be no return to another April 13,″ said Walid Eido, an opposition legislator from Hariri’s bloc.

But the fight over elections points to troubles ahead.

Opposition leaders accuse the pro-Syrian government of stalling in forming a Cabinet in order to torpedo the election.

Karami’s announcement throws the process back to square one. The president set Friday to begin consultations on picking another prime minister-designate, who must launch new negotiations for a government.

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