DAMASCUS - Chanting anti-U.S. slogans, tens of thousands of Syrians protested on Monday against a U.N. inquiry they say unfairly blames Damascus for the killing of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
The government-sponsored protests in Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo came on the eve of a U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss the findings amid demands by the United States and Britain for action against Syria.
Some of tens of thousands of Syrians demonstrate Monday, Oct.24, 2005, in Damscus, Syria, to protest against the U.N. report on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri that implicated Syrian and Lebanese officials. Organized to show support for the beleaguered government of President Bashar Assad, the demonstration came a day before the U.N. Security Council is due to debate the report. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi).
Demonstrators, waving Syrian flags and pictures of President Bashar al-Assad, said Washington instigated the U.N. probe to pile pressure on Syria for its struggle against Israel and opposition to the 2003 invasion of neighboring Iraq.
"The pressures have escalated since America entered Iraq and now its Syria's turn because its a symbol of Arab resistance," said Wasim Badour, an travel executive among the protesters in Damascus.
"We will not give up our land easily whatever the cost," said Loreen Samaan, an employee.
"We don't fear America, down with America," some youths chanted at the Damascus rally. Others carried banners that read: "Syria is not another Iraq" and "Syria will not kneel to America."
Witnesses said several thousand protesters, mainly youths and state employees, were encouraged by the authorities to take to the streets, while schools allowed pupils out to join in.
A similar, but apparently larger, rally also took place in Aleppo where crowds swelled its main squares.
The U.N. inquiry led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis found last week the decision to kill Hariri "could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials" colluding with officials in Lebanon.
Its report to the Security Council named senior Syrian security officials and their Lebanese allies as suspects in the murder that transformed Lebanon's political landscape.
Syrian officials have dismissed the report as political and said the charges were false but left the door open for future cooperation with the probe, saying it might agree to allow investigators to return to Damascus to quiz Syrian officials.
Washington is trying to arrange a Security Council meeting to consider a response. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Sunday she was confident of action, but did not specify what action she wanted the council to take.
The demonstrations in Damascus coincide with the start of a state campaign to rally Syrian public opinion against the U.N. report it says is politically motivated and does not provide enough evidence to indict any officials.
"Excuse me Mr Mehlis, the report did not convince me and it only serves Zionist and American goals," a banner at the rally in Damascus said. "We reject these false testimonies in the report," another banner said.
Scores of supporters of radical Palestinian groups based in Syria also joined demonstrators in the square in the capital.
"A thousand salutes to those who are fighting against the Americans in Iraq," chanted a young man from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) which was also implicated of playing a role in the Hariri killing.
© Reuters 2005.