BEIRUT, (Asharq Al Awsat and Agencies) – Lebanon’s Western-backed Prime Minister Fouad Siniora urged the Hezbollah-led opposition on Wednesday to end street protests and return to the negotiating table, vowing that he would not be forced from power.
“The street will not resolve any problem … there is no other way than to sit down and talk,” Siniora told cheering supporters at his offices in central Beirut.
Thousands of opposition followers have been camping out near government headquarters since Friday, paralysing the commercial and banking heart of Beirut, in an attempt to force Siniora’s resignation.
The protests have sparked several sectarian clashes between Shia Muslims who back Hezbollah and Siniora’s supporters, who are Sunnis, raising fears of large-scale violence in a country that has suffered two civil wars in the last 50 years. “This thing (protests) doesn’t yield results. It digs trenches and does not build a country,” Siniora said. “We open our heart and extend our hand and call on everyone to sit around the table to resolve the problems.”
The opposition is demanding the formation of a national unity government and accuses Siniora of failing to stand by pro-Syrian Hezbollah during the war with Israel in the summer.
Siniora allies accuse their opponents of using the protests to try to derail an international tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri, which many Lebanese blame on Syria — a charge Damascus denies.
Compromises floated by Lebanese politicians and Arab League Secretary-General, Amr Moussa, have failed to break the deadlock.
Hezbollah and its allies, among them a populist Christian party, want just over one-third of all cabinet seats, handing them effective power of veto.
Political sources said Siniora appeared to have accepted a proposal to increase the number of cabinet posts to 30 from 24. Nine or 10 of these posts would go to the opposition, 19 to the anti-Syrian coalition and one or two to neutral ministers. The opposition indicated this fell short of their demands.
The ruling majority says it will back a government of national unity, but only as part of a broader deal that would ensure parliament’s approval of plans for the Hariri tribunal and early presidential elections.
President Emile Lahoud is a pro-Syrian whose term was extended in 2004 and is due to end in November 2007.
Government and opposition supporters have accused each other of fuelling sectarian divisions, and a Shia protester was shot dead on Sunday, a killing Hezbollah loyalists say was the work of “militias” loyal to Saad al Hariri, Rafik’s son and head of the anti-Syrian majority. He has denied the accusation and warned Hezbollah not to turn to its own, well-armed militia in the stand-off.