Tens of thousands of supporters of Lebanon’s anti-Syrian opposition gathered in the Sunni stronghold of Tripoli on Sunday to denounce the regime in Damascus and its Shiite ally Hezbollah.
The rally in the northern port city was organized by the Future Movement, the main opposition party headed by ex-premier Saad Hariri, to mark the 68th anniversary of Lebanon’s independence.
It came amid mounting tension over the possible collapse of the government over a U.N.-backed tribunal probing the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father, ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, and the revolt in neighboring Syria.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose cabinet is dominated by Hezbollah and its allies, threatened last week to step down if the cabinet refused to fund the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).
The funding of the STL is due to be discussed at a crucial cabinet meeting next Wednesday.
Several politicians who spoke at the rally appealed to Mikati to uphold the country’s obligations concerning the tribunal and launched scathing attacks against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
MP Marwan Hamadeh urged the Arab League to tighten the noose around “the killer in Damascus,” referring to Assad whose violent crackdown against anti-government protests has left more than 3,500 people dead since March.
“The end of (the regime) in Damascus will be like that of Muammar Qaddafi, Zine ElAbidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak or Ali Abdullah Saleh,” Hamadeh said of the deposed leaders of Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen’s outgoing president.
“Beware Bashar, the choice is open and your fate is already decided,” he added.
In a message read on his behalf, Saad Hariri said Lebanon must uphold its international obligations and continue cooperating with the STL.
Hezbollah toppled Hariri's government in January after he refused to cut ties with the court.
“Funding the tribunal is not a favor,” said Hariri, who has been abroad since April. “It is a right, a duty, because the people want... justice.”
He also hailed the courage of those driving the revolt in Syria, saying they were laying the groundwork for “freedom, democracy and the downfall of dictatorship.”
The demonstrators carried party and Lebanese flags as well as banners that read “Bashar al-Assad, Qaddafi is waiting for you,” or “Bashar al-Assad, Hassan Nasrallah, game over,” a reference to the Hezbollah leader.
“We initially backed Sheikh Saad for the sake of Lebanon’s freedom, but now we also support him for Syria's freedom and to rid the country of Hezbollah’s weapons and the regime of Bashar al-Assad,” said Mohammed Alameddin, 27.
Mohammed Hamdash, a 40-year-old bank employee, said he was at the rally to denounce the influence of Hezbollah, the most powerful military and political group in Lebanon.
“We are here to say that we are against this Syrian-Iranian government imposed by Hezbollah,” he said.
The STL has indicted four Hezbollah operatives in connection with Hariri's murder.
But the militant party has dismissed the court as a U.S.-Israeli conspiracy, and Nasrallah has vowed that no party members wanted by the STL will ever be found.
Lebanon is responsible for meeting 49 percent of the STL’s financing, which amounts to some $35 million (25.2 million euros) this year.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is the first international court with jurisdiction to try an act of terrorism.
In northern Lebanon one teenager died in clashes that erupted after a vehicle with two passengers from a nearby Alawite village tried to drive through a crowd preparing to head to the rally.
Mohammed al-Mawla, 14, from the Sunni Muslim village of Sheikh Ayash, died in hospital of injuries sustained when he and another villager were run over by a car driven by a man from a nearby Alawite village, a security official told AFP.
The Alawite community is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and the majority of those living in Lebanon are loyal to the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which is dominated by Alawites.