Labor unions press ahead with planned anti-government protest

Thousands of troops and police stood guard Wednesday along the route of a planned demonstration against economic reforms, which has turned into a test of strength between Lebanon's pro- and anti-Syrian factions.

The government deployed about 1,500 armed soldiers and an equal number of police with batons to prevent trouble during the march, particularly when the pro-Syrian demonstrators, expected to be mostly Shiite Muslims, pass through districts whose Sunni Muslim inhabitants tend to take an anti-Syrian line.

Anti-Syrian politicians who support Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's government claim the demonstration scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. (1200 GMT) is inspired by Damascus and aimed at bringing down the Cabinet through street violence.

But the pro-Syrian parties behind the demonstration say they are seeking to warn the government against its economic reforms.

Worker representatives were also divided, with anti-Syrian forces calling on supporters to stay away from the protest.

The protest was called by the public teachers' unions seeking to force the government to withdraw its package of economic measures that is designed to cut the budget deficit and rein in public debt, now running at about US$38 billion. Among other items, the plan would abolish the ceiling on gasoline prices, which could hike prices by 30 percent, and raise the value added tax on goods and services by 2 percent to 12 percent.

Saniora has said the plan is open to negotiation and there was no need to protest. But talks between the labor unions and Saniora's aides have failed to bridge the differences, although the government offered a concession by withdrawing a proposal that would have granted contracts of limited duration to civil servants, reports the AP.


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