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Lebanon's pro-Syrian government resigns

BEIRUT, Lebanon—Lebanon's entire pro-Syrian government resigned Monday night, two weeks after senior opposition leader Rafik Hariri was killed in a bomb blast widely suspected of being the work of Syrian agents.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered outside Parliament cheered as Prime Minister Omar Karami announced his resignation and that of his Cabinet.

Parliament had spent much of the day debating how the investigation into Hariri's killing was being handled, and a vote of no confidence in the government was expected soon.

"I am keen that the government will not be a hurdle in front of those who want the good for this country. I declare the resignation of the government that I had the honor to head," Karami said.

In Washington, the White House welcomed Karami's resignation and said it would allow new elections free of interference from Syria.

Karami replaced Hariri in October after Hariri resigned along with three other ministers to protest the extension of pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's term in office.

The resignation of the government was a stunning development in an unfolding crisis that's given new life to opponents of Syria's continued involvement in Lebanon, but it's also unsettled a country where a 15-year civil war once made its name synonymous with political bloodshed.

Hariri, who had been named prime minister three times since 1990, was expected to lead opposition forces in May elections to challenge Lahoud before a powerful car bomb blew up the sport-utility vehicle he was traveling in. His funeral two days later became a chaotic anti-Syria demonstration.

Syria's and Lebanon's governments have denied involvement in the assassination, but the United States recalled its ambassador from Damascus to protest the killing and has renewed its calls for Syria to withdraw the 15,000 troops it has stationed in the country.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets here, demanding an end to Syrian domination of their political affairs and the removal of the troops.

In Damascus, demonstrators made it clear that Karami's resignation wouldn't end their protests.

"Lahoud, your turn is coming!" protestors outside Parliament chanted Monday night.

Opposition leaders urged the crowd to keep up the pressure.

"This is a victory, but this is not our ultimate goal," Parliament member Bassem al-Sabeh told the crowd. "So we have to continue our protests."

Members of the crowd waved bright red and white Lebanese flags. Some wore flags as scarves. The crowd included professionals, businessmen, housewives and students, many of whom slipped past police cordons to join the protest.

Observers predicted more protests.

"This is not a resignation over political or economic issues. This is a battle for the independence of Lebanon," said Farid el Khazen, chairman of the political studies department at the American University of Beirut. "The taboo (of not speaking against Syria) has been broken."

The outgoing government will remain in office until Lahoud, in consultation with Parliament, names an interim Cabinet.

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(Special correspondent Saidi reported from Beirut. Nelson reported from Jerusalem.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050215 Lebanon facts

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