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Lebanon declares seven days of mourning for Assad

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BEIRUT, June 10 -- Lebanon declared seven days of mourning for Syria's President Hafez al-Assad, whose death on Saturday sent tremors of unease through the volatile Middle East.

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said he was the last person to talk to Assad, who had a special place in Lebanon's history and exerted a powerful influence over the small mountainous nation.More than 1,000 Lebanese took to the streets of Beirut, carrying pictures of the Syrian leader and chanting "Assad is not dead. He is still alive with us."

Assad first sent Syrian troops as peacekeepers into Lebanon during its devastating civil war which began in 1975 and supported its Hizbollah guerrilla group in a 22-year struggle to end Israel's occupation of south Lebanon.

Syria remains the main power broker in Lebanon with 35,000 troops in the country.

Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, whose guerrillas finally forced Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon last month, praised Assad as a strong defender of Arab rights.

He said Hizbollah was confident Syria would continue to follow Assad's policies.

Lahoud said Assad's last words were about Middle East developments, cooperation between Lebanon and Syria and his support for Lebanon in liberating the Israeli-occupied south.

Israeli withdrew without getting the peace agreement it wanted with Lebanon or Syria, who had also used the Lebanese situation as a bargaining chip for its own ends.

Wamted a better future

"His last words were: 'our destiny is to build a better future for our countries, a safe future our children. We have to give them something better than what we inherited.' and then there was a sudden silence," Lahoud said in a condolences letter to Assad's son and probable successor, Bashar.

"I knew something had happened. Brother Bashar, we will continue our march with you and we will reach victory and Lebanon and its people will faithfully remember Assad who secured Lebanon's liberation," he added in the letter read on state television.

Lebanon's state television switched to a live pickup of Syrian state television to follow the news of Assad's death and later announced a seven-day period of mourning.

State and private television stations played classical music, recitations from the Koran and clips from Syrian state television related to his death. Flags were to fly at half mast above all Lebanese official institutions and buildings.

Prime Minister Selim al-Hoss described the veteran leader's death as a "momentous calamity which strikes Lebanon in the heart."

"With great sorrow, regret and pain the Lebanese government mourns...the great Arab leader who spent his life struggling in defence of Arab causes and carried the nation's concerns in his mind."

Lebanon's former premier and an ally of Syria, Rafik al-Hariri, said all eyes were focused on Bashar to take the presidency after his father.

"He is a man full of energy and a leadership ability which is expected to give Syria a lot in the future," Hariri said.