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(photo credit: AP)
Waving flags, holding balloons and even praying, tens of thousands of Lebanese packed into a city square Wednesday to mark the second anniversary of former prime minister Rafik Hariri's assassination. The government deployed hundreds of troops to deter trouble, a day after two bombs killed three people.
Troops in full combat gear and armored cars deployed in and around Martyrs' Square, where the country's two main rival groups were present: government supporters commemorating the Hariri's death, and opposition supporters continuing their daily sit-in to demand the government's resignation.
The soldiers set up a razor wire barrier to separate the two groups. Police conducted body searches as people arrived at the square.
An early arrival was Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, a longtime confidant of Hariri, who with his wife and several legislators prayed at Hariri's grave, which lies at one side of the square. Hariri's sister, Bahiya, a lawmaker, also came to the grave and prayed.
By late morning, the square was teeming with people waving the red-and-white national flag and political party flags. Many people held pictures of Hariri or balloons in the blue color of the Hariri faction in parliament, now led by his son, Saad.
Some demonstrators took turns to pray in front of the grave. Others climbed the square's statue, which commemorates Lebanese martyrs of the Ottoman era.
On the other side of the razor wire, opposition supporters were noticeably low-key in the tent village they have been sleeping in for months. Supporters of Hizbullah and other parties, they walked around to warm up under the sun.
Tuesday's explosions on commuter buses on a busy mountain highway northeast of Beirut stoked fears of turmoil as the country prepared to mark the 2005 assassination of Hariri, the nation's most prominent politician and the leader credited with rebuilding the country from the destruction of the 1975-90 civil war.
Lebanon has suffered a series of bombings during the past two years, mostly targeting anti-Syrian figures, but Tuesday's attacks were the first that seemed intended to cause maximum casualties among civilians of no political affiliation.
"We will hunt down the criminals and confront them," Saniora vowed in a televised speech Tuesday evening.
The pro-government majority in parliament said it held "the Syrian regime fully responsible for this despicable crime." Syria routinely denies involvement in Lebanese unrest.
The government, which has faced down months of demonstrations calling for its resignation, declared Wednesday a national holiday, closing schools, universities, banks and public institutions in a move that would allow for a big turnout.
In a bid to allow the anniversary to pass peacefully, the major opposition figure, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, praised the late Hariri in a letter published on the front page of As-Safir newspaper Wednesday. Nasrallah said Hariri's killing in a massive truck bomb on Feb. 14, 2005, was a loss for the whole country.
Finding the perpetrators has become "a collective national demand," Nasrallah wrote.
The army deployed troops on highways to prevent friction between rival supporters as they approached the city center. Many roads were completely sealed off except for buses on designated routes which were expected to bring in government supporters from outlying areas.
The potential for violence was demonstrated on Jan. 23 when a strike called by the opposition turned into clashes with government supporters. Two days later, an argument among students on a university campus led to rioting between supporters of the government and opposition. Eight people were killed in the violence.
Hariri and 22 others were killed in a huge explosion that occurred as his motorcade was passing through central Beirut. He was buried a few blocks away from the site. Outrage over the assassination forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon two months later, ending a 29-year presence.
A UN investigation into the assassination is proceeding, but Lebanon has been hit by a string of bombings in the past two years that many government supporters blame on Syria. Syria has denied any role in the attacks, including the Hariri assassination.
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