Supporters of Samir Geagea, the jailed leader of the banned Lebanese Forces Christian militia, rallied for the second time in four days Sunday to call for his release and criticize Syria's influence in Lebanon.
Some 2,000 demonstrators gathered in the town of Maifouq, 75 kilometers (45 miles) northeast of Beirut, where Geaga lived for a time, to attend a mass in the memory of the 300 members of the militia who died in the 1975-90 civil war.
On Thursday thousands of demonstrators had rallied in Ashrafiyeh, a Christian neighborhood in the capital, on the 18th anniversary of the assassination of president-elect Bashir Gemayel, head of the Lebanese Forces during the war.
"Geagea is innocent, free him!" and "Syrians out", the Maifouq protestors shouted, brandishing the Lebanese Forces' flag, banned since Geagea's arrest in February 1994 on political murder charges.
The Lebanese army had set up six roadblocks on the 20 kilometer (12 mile) road to Maifouq from the coast and checked the identity of all those entering the town, confiscating any flags and portraits of Geagea they found.
But many escaped the controls as the demonstrators left their cars outside the town and made their way on foot to the monastery where they mass was held.
Geagea has been jailed at the defense ministry since February 1994 after being accused of ordering a church bombing that killed 11 in hopes of rallying Christians against Syrian control.
Although Geagea was cleared in the church bombing case, he was convicted of other attacks, including the 1989 murder of Christian leader Dany Chamoun and his family. Geagea was condemned to death, but the sentence was later commuted to life in prison.
Geagea's supporters note that Geagea was the only militia leader from the civil war to be tried, while both Muslims and Christians who were pro-Syrian were spared legal action.
The Christian right has made a sudden return to the Lebanese political stage, following peace overtures by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in the recent election campaign, when he called for Geaga's release.
Newspapers said it could only have been with the blessing of Syria, which calls the political shots in Lebanon and has 35,000 troops stationed there -- MAIFOUQ, Lebanon (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)