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Tens of thousands protest govt reform plan in Beirut

Written by: Staff

BEIRUT, May 10 (Reuters) Tens of thousands of Lebanese marched today through the streets of Beirut condemning the anti-Syrian government and demanding it scrap economic reform plans that have split the country.

A year after mass protests brought down a pro-Syrian government and helped end Syria's 29-year military presence in Lebanon, security officials said at least 100,000 people poured into downtown Beirut in a politically charged labour protest to say ''no to taxes, no to corruption.'' Anti-Syrian forces were absent from the protest which drew state employees, students, schoolchildren and pro-Syrian Hizbollah and Amal loyalists, as well as orange-clad supporters of Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun.

''The people who go hungry eat their rulers,'' read one banner carried through the crowd. ''No to the sabotage plan,'' chanted some demonstrators.

Original plans by pro-Syrian politicians to push for the government to resign were set aside after it caved into the main trade union demand and dropped tentative plans to introduce shorter term contracts for public sector jobs, which would have cut the number of state ''jobs for life'' amid high unemployment.

But union bosses decided to go ahead with the protest, complaining that the reform package, drawn up by the government to help cut a public debt above 36 billion dollars, would harm working people through a series of tax increases.

''We want the government to withdraw the entire reform plan and cancel the plan to grant state employees contracts with limited duration,'' Mahmoud Qomati, politburo member of the Shi'ite Muslim Hizbollah guerrilla group, told Reuters.

The government, led by a former finance minister, hopes to present the reform package to international lenders at a debt aid conference it plans to hold in Beirut this year.

But the conference has been delayed as fractious Lebanese politicians squabble over reforms that include privatisation of the telecommunications and power sectors, increases in income and value-added tax and cuts in public sector spending.

Anti-Syrian politicians say the protests are premature as the cabinet has yet to approve the proposals.

''This country needs a reform plan. We have yet to seriously discuss the plan,'' Acting Interior Minister Ahmad Fattfat told a news conference. ''If people have a different vision that is fine.

This plan is for discussion.'' REUTERS SY KN1933

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