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Mourners of ex-Lebanese leader call on government to resign

BEIRUT -- Mourners unfurled a huge banner near former prime minister Rafik Hariri's grave yesterday calling on the Lebanese government to resign, and thousands signed the impromptu petition in the sharpest sign yet of popular discontent against the country's pro-Syrian authorities.

The spontaneous declaration against Prime Minister Omar Karami's pro-Syrian government is the first of its kind since similar protests in 1992 forced that government -- which also was led by Karami -- to step down.

The resignation calls are sure to increase pressure on the government, which many accuse of involvement in Hariri's killing, and its main power broker Syria, which also has been linked to the popular billionaire's death and is facing US calls to withdraw its 15,000 soldiers from Lebanon.

Both governments have denied any involvement in the bombing. Hariri's family has called for an internationally led investigation into the blast that killed Hariri and 16 others on Monday, but Lebanon's government opposes a foreign-led probe. It has, however, requested foreign investigators, including Swiss forensic and explosives specialists, assist the inquiry.

''We call upon the international community to promptly take control of this issue and form an international investigation commission, since the assassination of Rafik Hariri is a terrorist act targeting Lebanon's stability and national unity," said a statement released by Hariri's family.

''We will not spare any effort or means to find the perpetrators of this crime no matter what their affiliation is," the statement said.

Many Lebanese are seething over the death of Hariri, whom they credit with rebuilding their country following the devastating 1975-90 civil war, and more than 200,000 mourners attended his funeral on Wednesday. Government officials did not attend, at the insistence of Hariri's family.

Hariri resigned as prime minister last year amid opposition to a Syrian-backed constitutional amendment that extended the presidency of his rival, Damascus ally Emile Lahoud.

Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh of Lebanon, who paid a condolence call to Hariri's home yesterday, afterward renewed his government's opposition to calls for an international investigation.

''We have said that we can seek help from international experts. But we cannot abandon our role and bring in [foreign] states to investigate," he said.

Lahoud and acting prosecutor general Rabia Kaddoura asked Ambassador Thomas Litscher of Switzerland for his country's help in the murder inquiry.

''Both of them have in fact informed me about a request [for] Swiss experts in . . . explosives and DNA analysis [to] assist the investigation of the bomb attack on Mr. Hariri," Litscher said.

Hariri, a charismatic man whose wealth and prominence gave him some degree of independence from Syria's political influence in Lebanon, led his country for 10 of 14 years following the war and was expected to stand in parliamentary elections scheduled for April and May. He had not ruled out another run for prime minister.

The intense international pressure to find his killers has increased anxieties in Lebanon and its neighboring power broker, Syria, which has announced it is seeking stronger cooperation with Iran. Washington's ire has been directed at both -- Iran for its nuclear ambitions and Syria for its alleged ties to terrorism -- and talk of an alliance to confront possible threats stirred concern.

Word of the alliance came as Washington recalled its ambassador to Syria. France also backs renewed US calls for Syria to withdraw its 15,000 troops from Lebanon, where they have been based since the early stages of the civil war. Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa of Syria told CNN earlier this month that his country has 15,000 to 16,000 troops in Lebanon. Paris, Washington, and the UN Security Council have demanded the Lebanese government urgently investigate the killing and bring the culprits to justice.

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