MPs shelter from assassins in Beirut hotel

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BEIRUT, Oct 23 (Reuters) Lebanese lawmaker Hadi Hbeich has barely seen daylight in a month, sheltered in a Beirut hotel with other MPs behind tight security designed to stop them joining a list of assassinated anti-Syrian politicians.

''Sometimes they tell you it's been raining outside. I'm not exaggerating when I say we really don't know,'' said the MP, speaking in a hotel suite behind closed curtains and under the watch of guards who searched the room before he entered.

Hbeich is one of around 40 MPs from the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority who have moved into the InterContinental Phoenicia to protect themselves from assassins who have struck against their bloc three times in less than a year.

The last was on September. 19, when a car bomb killed lawmaker Antoine Ghanem -- a member of the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition which secured its parliamentary majority in 2005 elections.

''It's clear that the Syrian regime is targeting the March 14 MPs,'' said Hbeich, accusing Damascus of orchestrating the assassinations of its political foes in Lebanon.

''Anyone who raises his voice in this country to say I want a free country ... is risking his life,'' he said.

Syria denies involvement in a series of killings which began with the February. 14 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Since then, seven other anti-Syrian figures have been killed.

Trying to make sure they are not the next victims, the March 14 MPs have hunkered down in the seafront hotel, its entrance guarded by concrete barriers and tank traps.

Security men have taken up positions on the balconies of derelict buildings nearby, training assault rifles on a back entrance where cars are searched with bomb detectors.

''A STATE OF WAR'' Hbeich has left the building just three times, once last month to attend a parliament session called to elect a replacement for President Emile Lahoud, a close Syrian ally whose term ends on November. 23.

But the vote did not go ahead because of political conflict between March 14 leaders and others backed by Damascus who hold a minority of the seats in parliament.

A further vote scheduled for Tuesday has also been postponed until November. 12 to give the rivals more time to agree on a candidate for the post.

Ghanem's assassination -- just days before the first scheduled vote to elect Lahoud's successor -- deepened March 14's belief that the assassins aim to erase their already slim absolute majority, now reduced to three.

Fouad al-Saad, another legislator currently resident in the hotel, said the killers wanted to turn ''the majority into a minority through the liquidation of a number of MPs''.

To keep out of view of would-be snipers, the MPs are not allowed to open their curtains. Use of the hotel gym is restricted to certain times.

''It's as if we are in a state of war,'' said Saad, explaining how bullet-proof cars and decoy convoys are used whenever an MP has to leave the confines of the hotel on essential business.

''We are still steadfast in the face of this international terrorism. Morale is excellent,'' he said.


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