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Lebanese Hang Up Cell Phones for Day

Thousands of Lebanese went without their beloved cell phones to protest fees they believe are too high, the consumer advocacy group that helped organize the boycott said Friday.

Just over half of Lebanon's 850,000 cell phone owners had complied by the time the 24-hour boycott ended Thursday night, said Zuhair Berro, president of the Consumer Lebanon (search) group. He based the figure on his group's sample of 4,000 cell phone owners.

Cell phones are considered so necessary to life in Lebanon that many in this country of 4.5 million carry two. But Saad Mehio, an author, journalist and political analyst, said he gave his up for the day.

"Yes, I am for the boycott," he said. "Quote me: I have switched off my phone to protest the official theft ... the official looting."

Boycott organizers called on the government to cancel a $27.50 line fee and lower the cost of calls by 30 percent. Prices for calls range from 13 cents per minute for permanent lines to 53 cents for prepaid card users, plus a 10 percent additional fee. The average cellular phone bill in Lebanon comes to $80 per month.

Talal Assaf, an adviser to Minister of Telecommunications Jean-Louis Kordahi, said the ministry would have no comment until it had studied consumers' response to the boycott call. The Kuwaiti firm Mobile Telecom Company and the German firm Telecon each operate a GSM network (search) in Lebanon for the government. Neither company has commented on the boycott.

Sixteen consumer protection groups, trade and labor unions and other organizations supported the boycott called by the General Labor Confederation and Consumer Lebanon.

Lebanese embraced cell phones when they were first introduced here in 1994. For many, it was the only way to get a phone after the 1975-90 civil war decimated fixed lines.

Berge Arabian, a businessman in Beirut's Bourj Hammoud (search) neighborhood, said before cell phones arrived, salespeople would spend hours in traffic trying to reach customers to speak to them in person.

"The cellular solved the problem for us," said Arabian. He said he did not join the boycott — but noted the call from The Associated Press was the first he'd received all day Thursday.