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Anti-Syria demonstration in Beirut

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Thousands demand the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.

Why was Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri targeted?
Civil Unrest
Rafik Hariri

BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- Chanting "Syria out," thousands of people packed the streets of Beirut to protest the presence Syrian forces in Lebanon -- and the influence they believe Syria has on the Lebanese government.

They had support from President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac, who issued a joint statement calling for Syrian troops to leave Lebanon in line with U.N. resolution 1559.

Bush and Chirac also said they supported a U.N. investigation into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri who died in an explosion last week.

"We support the U.N. investigation into this terrorist act and urge the full cooperation of all parties in order to identify those responsible," the joint statement said.

Monday's demonstration was mainly composed of Christians and members of the Druse community, and police reportedly set up checkpoints leading into the city from the predominantly Druse Chouf region and along the city's main northern entrances, through which many Christians were coming.

A significant security presence was also on the streets, with about 300 officers armed with M-16 rifles and AK-47 assault rifles.

The protesters included men and women of all ages. Many were wearing red and white scarves, a symbol of the movement calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

One protester held up a broom along with a sign saying it was to sweep the Syrians out.

Also Monday, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said Syria will "soon" take steps to withdraw its army from Lebanese areas in accordance with a 1989 agreement, but it was not clear whether that meant Syria would completely leave Lebanon as demanded by the international community.

The announcement came after a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad. (Full story)

The opposition, which includes members of numerous political and ethnic groups, has openly accused Syria of involvement in Hariri's death, an accusation both Syria -- and the pro-Syria Lebanese government -- have denied.

Syrian Cabinet minister Boutheina Shaaban told CNN from Damascus the assassination was "deeply against the interests of Syria." And she appeared to suggest the United States had some involvement.

"I don't like to point the finger at anyone," she said, " ... but we see it as part of destabilizing the entire region in the name of bringing democracy and freedom."

"There are some people who are trying to hijack this terrible act of terrorism ... for their own political purposes," she said. "Even when they said Syria is morally responsible ... it's equivalent to saying the United States is morally responsible for 9/11. This is terrorism ... and nobody is immune to terrorism anymore."

Shaaban said the assassination was an act "targeting the unity of Lebanon, the stability of Syria and the relations of Syria and Lebanon and the entire world."

"We see who has an interest in destabilizing the region, and it is not Syria," she said.

Hariri, 60, was a popular politician and construction industry billionaire, who resigned as prime minister in October, after the parliament decided to extend the term of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud for three more years.

Hariri had pushed for a U.N. resolution, passed in October, calling on the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, deployed there as part of the 1989 Ta'if Accord at the end of Lebanon's 15-year civil war.

Shaaban said Syrian troops were being withdrawn on a schedule, noting that the original 40,000 troops were now down to 14,000. Syrian troops are deployed mostly near Lebanon's borders.

Hariri died February 14 in a bomb explosion in Beirut's chic waterfront district -- a blast so powerful it left a 20-foot wide, 10-foot deep crater in the road and rained debris on the streets for blocks. Sixteen others were also killed.

CNN correspondents Ben Wedeman and Brent Sadler contributed to this report.

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