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Lebanon celebrated its independence Tuesday, free of Syrian troops for the first time in 29 years, but not forgetting the painful event in February that transformed its political landscape.
"This year we celebrate with special joy, but deep bitterness," Prime Minister Fuad Saniora told a small crowd at the grave of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in downtown Beirut.
After watching a military parade in Martyrs' Square, the prime minister had led some Cabinet ministers and legislators across the square to the flower-blanketed grave, where they were jointed by supporters of Hariri.
"It is a special joy that we are celebrating Independence Day after Lebanon has regained this sovereignty that was lost due to the circumstances in which we lived during the 30 years since 1975," Saniora said, referring to the start of the 15-year civil war, which saw the deployment of thousands of Israeli and Syrian troops in Lebanon. "There is deep bitterness in our hearts because of the loss of the martyr Prime Minister Rafik Hariri."
Hariri and 20 others were killed in a massive truck bombing on Feb. 14 that is currently being investigated by a U.N. commission. In an interim report last month, the commission said the assassination could not have been carried out without the complicity of Syrian and Lebanese intelligence.
The bombing caused hundreds of thousands of Lebanese to demonstrate against Syria, as Hariri was seen as a quiet opponent of Damascus' domination of Lebanon. Reinforced by UN Security Council demand, the pressure forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in April, ending a 29-year presence in the country.
In a statement Tuesday, Hariri's son Saad said the killing of his father had "awakened the Lebanese to their freedom."
"Lebanon is reclaiming its independence, its sovereignty and the democratic traditions that have made Lebanon unique," Saad Hariri said in a message released by his office in Beirut.
But the killing also highlighted differences in Lebanon that have yet to be resolved, particularly over the role that big neighbor Syria should play in the country.
For the first time, no Syrian officials attended the celebrations that mark Lebanon's independence from France in 1943. Earlier this month Syrian President Bashar Assad accused Lebanon of becoming a nest of anti-Syrian conspiracies.
Lebanon's President Emile Lahoud, who is pro-Syrian, took the salute at the parade of soldiers, tanks and artillery guns, but he did not accompany Saniora to Hariri's grave afterward. Instead, Lahoud went to his palace in Baabda where later he hosted a reception.
Saniora and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri joined Lahoud in welcoming the guests to the presidential reception. But pro-Hariri legislators, apart from Saniora, boycotted the reception. And back at Hariri's grave, about 100 Hariri supporters shouted slogans against Lahoud, who is seen as part of the pro-Syrian group in the Lebanese establishment who opposed the slain prime minister.
Saad Hariri himself was not in Lebanon on Tuesday. He is living abroad for security reasons. A series of mysterious bombings, for which nobody has been arrested, have killed or wounded several opponents of Syria this year.
Lahoud did receive a rare token of support from the United States, which opposed his term being extended last year in a Syrian-orchestrated parliamentary maneuver. US officials also shunned Lahoud when he attended the U.N. General Assembly session in New York in September.
In a cable to Lahoud, US President George W. Bush praised Lebanon's progress toward independence following the withdrawal of Syrian troops and pledged to support the country's efforts to build "a free, democratic, and prosperous country."
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