Lebanon opposition joins labourers in protest

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s Hizbollah-led opposition joined labour unions on Tuesday in a protest against tax increases proposed by embattled Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, stepping up pressure to force the government into resigning.

The demonstration outside the finance ministry’s taxation department in central Beirut was called for by labour unions after Siniora proposed to increase taxes as part of a government economic reform plan ahead of an international donors’ conference in Paris later this month.

But what started as purely labour demands quickly turned into another political battle between the opposition and the government, further deepening political divisions and even splitting the labour unions.

Pro-government labour groups stayed away from Tuesday’s sit-in, while the Hizbollah-led opposition decided to escalate its ongoing street protests to bring down the government.

Hundreds of combat troops and riot police deployed the demonstration to prevent trouble. Witnesses said soldiers and security forces outnumbered the protesters.

Army Commander Gen. Michel Suleiman was quoted by the As-Safir daily newspaper Tuesday as saying the military would protect demonstrators, but also warning that the army “will never allow the storming of any public or official institution or a private institution.” Witnesses said some 1,500 unionists, waving Lebanese and opposition party flags, demonstrated about 200 metres from the finance ministry department. Police would not disclose its estimate of the number of protesters.

“The value added tax will further impoverish the poor. No to the imposition of new taxes,” read one of the placards carried by protesters. Another placard read, “Siniora is responsible for impoverishing Lebanon.” Union speakers lashed out at the taxes, describing the economic programme as “disastrous” to workers and farmers.

They also criticised government plans to privatise public utilities, such as the electricity company and the telecommunications sector.

Tuesday’s protest came after the government endorsed a sweeping economic reform plan in a bid to attract foreign financial assistance — much needed after the Hizbollah-Israel war in the summer worsened Lebanon’s economic woes, destroying many infrastructures.

The plan, unveiled by Siniora last week, would be presented to an international donors’ conference scheduled in Paris on January 25 to drum up financial aid and soft loans to help Lebanon cope with a soaring public debt and revitalise the struggling economy.

The plan envisages a privatisation programme directed primarily at increasing investment and reducing public debt estimated at more than $40 billion  — twice the country’s Gross Domestic Product.

Siniora indicated that the programme also includes unpopular measures such as an increase in the value added tax on goods and services from 10 to 12 per cent — and fuel price hikes. The steps would be implemented in 2008.

Ghassan Ghosn, president of the largest Lebanese union confederation, said Tuesday’s protest would be followed by street demonstrations and strikes if the government does not drop the proposed tax increases.

Addressing the crowd, Ghosn called for a new demonstration outside the energy ministry on Wednesday. He said Tuesday’s protest was an “alarm bell” to be followed by other actions until the unions’ demands are met.

The unions’ move came as the Hizbollah-led opposition has decided to escalate its ongoing street protests against the prime minister after Siniora rejected its demand for a national unity government that would give Hizbollah and its allies veto power on key Cabinet decisions.

Supporters of the opposition have camped out in central Beirut since December 1, turning the area into a city of tents where thousands of people gather daily, shouting anti-government slogans less than 100 metres from the government building where Siniora has been living under tight security, refusing to step down.

Opposition groups decided Monday to stage daily marches outside ministries and public facilities as part of its stepped up campaign.

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