A year after mass protests brought down a pro-Syrian government and helped end Syria's 29-year military presence in the country, security officials said at least 100,000 people poured into the city centre to protest against taxes and corruption on Wednesday.

Anti-Syrian forces were absent from the protest which drew state employees, students, schoolchildren as well as Hizbollah and Amal loyalists. Supporters of Michel Aoun, the Christian opposition leader, were also present wearing orange.

"The people who go hungry eat their rulers," read one banner. "No to the sabotage plan," chanted some demonstrators.

Tax increases

Original plans by pro-Syrian politicians to push for the government to resign were set aside after it caved into the main trade union demand and dropped tentative plans to introduce shorter-term contracts for public sector jobs.

The protest attracted state
employees, students and children

This would have cut the number of state jobs guaranteed for life amid high unemployment.

But union bosses decided to go ahead with the protest, saying that the reform package, drawn up by the government to help cut a public debt of more than $36 billion, would harm working people through a series of tax increases.

Mahmoud Qomati, a politburo member of Hizbollah, said: "We want the government to withdraw the entire reform plan and cancel the plan to grant state employees contracts with a limited duration."
 
Debt aid forum

The government, led by a former finance minister, hopes to present the reform package to international lenders at a debt aid conference it plans to hold in Beirut this year.

But the conference has been delayed as Lebanese politicians squabble over reforms that include privatisation of the telecommunications and power sectors, increases in income and value-added tax and cuts in public sector spending.

Anti-Syrian politicians say the protests are premature as the cabinet has yet to approve the proposals.

Ahmad Fattfat, the acting interior minister, told a news conference: "This country needs a reform plan. We have yet to seriously discuss the plan.

"If people have a different vision, that is fine. This plan is for discussion."