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Lebanese protesters form human chain across country amid mounting tensions

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Demonstrators joined hands from Tripoli to Tyre, a 170-km chain running through the main protest hub in Beirut, as part of an unprecedented cross-sectarian mobilisation.

Beirut

TENS of thousands of Lebanese protesters formed a human chain running across the entire country on Sunday to symbolise newfound national unity. Demonstrators joined hands from Tripoli to Tyre, a 170-kilometre chain running through the main protest hub in the capital Beirut, as part of an unprecedented cross-sectarian mobilisation.

Tensions have mounted in recent days between security forces and protesters, who have blocked roads and brought the country to a standstill to press their demands for a complete overhaul of the political system.

Lebanon's reviled political elite have been defending a belated package of economic reforms and appeared willing to reshuffle the government, but protesters who have stayed in the streets since Oct 17 want more. On foot, by bicycle and on motorbikes, demonstrators and volunteers fanned out along the main north-south highway.

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"Everything is ready, we even have volunteers on motorbikes who are helping us identify gaps in the chain," said Julie Tegho Bou Nassif, one of the organisers.

"The idea behind this human chain is to show an image of a Lebanon which, from north to south, rejects any sectarian affiliation," the 31-year-old history professor told AFP.

"There is no political demand today, we only want to send a message by simply holding hands under the Lebanese flag," she said.

On the Beirut seafront, men, women and children held hands, some carrying Lebanese flags and many singing the national anthem, an AFP photographer said.

"The idea is that from the north to the south we are united and making a stand together," said another organiser in Zeituna Bay, who asked to be called a "daughter of Beirut". "We are one people and we love each other," she told AFP, in between coordinating on one of her two mobile phones.

On the main highway north-east of Beirut, another AFP photographer saw dozens standing along a stretch of highway under a rocky hillside covered in bushes.

In the southern city of Tyre, protesters standing in a line held the edges of a long Lebanese flag, local television showed. A young boy played with it, making it billow up and down.

The protests have been remarkable for their territorial reach and the absence of political or sectarian banners, in a country often defined by its divisions among various communities.

The leaderless protest movement, driven mostly by a young generation of men and women born after the 1975-1990 civil war, has even been described by some as the birth of a Lebanese citizen identity.

The army has sought to reopen main roads across the country, where schools and banks have been closed for more than a week.

In one of the most serious incidents, the army opened fire on Friday to confront a group of protesters blocking a road in Tripoli, wounding at least six people. But the unprecedented protest movement has been relatively incident-free, despite tensions with the armed forces and attempts by party loyalists to stage counter-demonstrations.

Protesters have been demanding the removal of the entire ruling class, which has remained largely unchanged in three decades. AFP