Lebanon marked 65 years of independence today with an official ceremony staged in downtown Beirut amid strict security for the first time in three years. In a country with no tradition of publicly celebrating independence since the 1975-1990 civil war, the day was marked by a military ceremony for an audience of ministers, lawmakers, ambassadors and other dignitaries. Streets leading to Martyrs Square were cordoned off for the ceremony which was attended by president Michel Sleiman, prime minister Fuad Siniora and parliament speaker Nabih Berri.
Sleiman laid a wreath at the Martyrs Statue before the hour-long ceremony began. Hundreds of red and white balloons were launched skywards before military helicopters flying the Lebanese flag overflew marching troops and a drive-past by tanks. Lebanese Independence Day commemorates the tiny country's liberation in 1943 after 23 years of governance by French Mandate that succeeded Ottoman rule. Today's event marked a relative return of calm as Lebanon struggles to move on from three years of unrest.
The past three years been marred by political assassinations, a deadly war with Israel, a debilitating political crisis that paralysed most government institutions and a battle with Islamists in a Palestinian refugee camp. Because of the unrest, Independence Day ceremonies have been held at the defence ministry for the past two years. In 2005, Lebanon celebrated Independence Day without Syrian troops on its soil for the first time in three decades, after Damascus withdrew its forces from the country in April that year after two decades of domination.
The Syrian pull-out came after the assassination in February of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister, by a massive car bomb in Beirut. Syria was widely blamed for the killing, but denied any involvement. In 2006, Lebanon's industry minister Pierre Gemayel was assassinated on the eve of Independence Day. Last year, the national holiday marked the end of president Emile Lahoud's term at the height of a political crisis between pro- and anti- Syrian factions that subsequently left a six-month void in the presidency.
The ruling anti-Syrian coalition had already been boycotting Lahoud after the constitution was amended to extend his term for a further two years. At the same time, the opposition was also staging a month-long sit-in in downtown Beirut demanding Siniora's resignation. * AFP