Protesters Back on Beirut Streets, US Offers Support

BEIRUT - Hundreds of protesters waving Lebanese flags returned to central Beirut on Tuesday to demand Syria quit Lebanon and the United States welcomed what it called moves to restore democracy in Lebanon.

Lebanese officials began a search for a new premier after the government of Prime Minister Omar Karami resigned on Monday following two weeks of protests, piling more pressure on Damascus, already under fire from the United States and Israel.

"Events in Lebanon are moving in a very important direction," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in London. "The Lebanese people are starting to express their aspirations for democracy ... This is something that we support very much."

Thousands of demonstrators turned a square in Beirut into a sea of Lebanese flags on Monday night and exploded into riotous celebration when the government unexpectedly quit after a parliament debate on the killing of ex-premier Rafik al-Hariri.

The jubilant protesters left in the early hours of Tuesday only for a few hundred to return hours later, vowing to keep up their street protests until Syrian troops left the country.

"Our hopes are growing regarding Syria's exit after the resignation of the government," Patrick Risha, a 22-year-old political science student told Reuters at Martyrs' Square. "This encourages us to stay here and continue our protest."

"We will not go to school. We will keep coming here until [President Emile] Lahoud is toppled and the Syrians leave Lebanon," Elainne Hajj, 16, said.

In London, Rice also called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops and said Washington fully supported open elections.

Most of the opposition protesters are Maronite Christians, who have long opposed Syria's role in Lebanon, Druze and some Sunni Muslims. Shi'ite Muslims, Lebanon's largest community, have mainly stayed away from the anti-Syrian rallies.

People powerNewspapers hailed the role of the Lebanese in trying to bring change.

"Government falls under the pressure of the people and the hammer of the opposition," said Al-Mustaqbal daily, owned by the late Hariri.

"People power brings down Karami's cabinet," the headline in Beirut's English-language Daily Star newspaper read.

"Electricity is in the air. Beirut is a sea of excitement, and activity and turmoil," it said in an editorial. "The word 'revolution' is on many lips."

The Daily Star urged the opposition and loyalists alike to grasp the full magnitude of the popular movement and heed its wishes for a new Lebanon.

"And Syria should consider what is happening in a somber manner and not thwart the ideals demonstrated by Lebanon's youth: It is, indeed, the time for change," it said.

Syria plays a dominant role in Lebanon and maintains 14,000 troops there. Pressure has been growing within Lebanon and from abroad for a complete military withdrawal.

Protesters have gathered in Martyrs' Square, which they dubbed Freedom Square, ever since Hariri's assassination on Feb. 14 to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops and the resignation of all top pro-Syrian political and security officials.

Opposition deputies, many war-time foes, have joined forces, capitalising on fury over Hariri's death to pressure those they blame - Syria and the government. Syria has denied any role.

The country's top two pro-Syrian officials, the president and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, were in contact to discuss a new government, officials said. Lahoud was set to call for consultations this week with parliamentary deputies to choose a successor.

"There are no fears whatsoever of a constitutional vacuum," one presidential aide said in response to speculation that finding a new premier could take a long time.

Opposition figures were set to meet on Wednesday to agree on their next move.

They looked set to demand a government made up of people who would not be running for office in May general elections and who would be acceptable to most Lebanese. They would also demand the resignation of security chiefs, political sources said.