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Blair runs into protests on Lebanon visit

Written by: Staff

BEIRUT, Sept 11: Hundreds of Lebanese protested against British Prime Minister Tony Blair's visit to Beirut today accusing him of backing Israel's 34-day war with Hizbollah guerrillas.

Troops, riot police and barbed-wire barriers kept the demonstrators well away from the government building in downtown Beirut where Blair was meeting Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

''I'm standing here because Blair is the killer of Lebanese children,'' said Ibad Malak, a 19-year-old student.

Blair angered many Lebanese by his refusal to call for an early ceasefire in the conflict which killed nearly 1,200 people in Lebanon, mainly civilians, and 157 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

He is discussing with Siniora a UN truce in effect since Aug. 14 and Britain's contribution to postwar reconstruction.

''Beirut is free, Blair out,'' chanted the protesters. Some carried placards reading ''Thank you Blair for delivering the intelligent bombs'' -- referring to US flights laden with bombs for Israel that refuelled in Scotland during the war.

''Tony Blair supports America and Israel and has supported the war, so how can we welcome him here,'' said Ali Shahine, 21, a hotel worker who was among the protesters.

Blair had been due to meet Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, an ally of Hizbollah, but an aide to the Shi'ite Muslim leader said he had left on a private visit abroad on Saturday.

The aide would not say whether Berri had deliberately snubbed Blair, but said his trip had been previously planned.

An aide to Blair said two Hizbollah ministers had declined to attend a planned meeting of the British leader with the Lebanese government. Blair had no plans to meet pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud during his visit.

Top Shi'ite cleric Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah said yesterday Blair was not welcome because of his support for Israel and Washington. He also criticised Blair for allowing US arms to be shipped via Britain to Israel for use against Lebanon.

''SLAUGHTERING OUR CHILDREN'' Fadlallah said Blair should have been told to stay away so he would ''know we are not so naive as to welcome him when he has contributed to killing us and slaughtering our children''.

Blair began his West Asia tour in Israel on Saturday on a peace drive that analysts say is aimed partly at countering criticism of his pro-US stance during the Lebanon war and partly at bolstering his political legacy.

Last week Blair was forced to concede he will leave office within a year to quell a rebellion in his Labour Party.

Blair said yesterday the international community should deal with a unity Palestinian government if it breaks with the policies of the boycotted Hamas-led administration.

''I believe that such a government, based on the Quartet requirements, does offer the possibility of re-engagement by the international community,'' Blair said.

A Hamas spokesman said President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh had achieved a breakthrough in talks that could see the formation of such a government within days.

The Quartet of Middle East peace brokers -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia -- have cut aid to the Hamas's government, demanding it recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept past interim peace deals.

Hamas, an Islamist militant group whose charter calls for Israel's destruction, has so far resisted international pressure and calls by Abbas to soften its policy toward the Jewish state.


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