BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – The Hezbollah-led opposition has called on its supporters to take to the streets this weekend in a massive show of force, stepping up the pressure on the U.S.-backed government that has vowed not to give in to the popular protests.
The opposition’s move comes as street demonstrations by Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian parties aimed at pressuring Prime Minister Fouad Siniora into quitting entered their seventh day with no end in sight to the deepening political crisis that is threatening to tear the country apart.
The opposition called on supporters to take part in “a historic and decisive” demonstration in central Beirut on Sunday, hoping it would be “a day in which deaf ears and blind eyes would open by meeting the legitimate demands and replacing monopoly with participation and the one-color government with a national unity government,” according to a statement published in Lebanese newspapers on Thursday.
The guerrilla group, which has gained increasing political clout after its summer war with Israel, wants to topple Siniora’s government because it has rejected demands for forming a national unity government that would give the pro-Hezbollah factions veto power in the Cabinet.
Siniora’s allies, meanwhile, have accused Hezbollah of being influenced by Iran and Syria, which they claim want to destabilize Lebanon by supporting the militant group’s plans to oust the government.
Hezbollah and its allies brought hundreds of thousands of supporters to central Beirut last week for a protest to launch their campaign to topple the government.
Sunday’s planned protest coincided with Saniora’s appeal to Hezbollah and other factions to stop “digging bunkers,” return to the negotiating table and help rebuild Lebanon.
It also came as Lebanon’s influential Maronite Catholic Church warned that the political crisis had reached a dangerous level and called for parliament to convene to break the deadlock. The church also proposed the formation of a new government and holding early presidential elections.
In its statement Wednesday, the church avoided the term “national unity government,” as demanded the Hezbollah-led opposition, and proposed the formation of a “reconciliation government that ensures wide participation at the national level.”
But President Emile Lahoud on Wednesday rejected early presidential elections, reiterating that the formation of a national unity government was the only solution to the political crisis, according to a statement issued by his office.
The pro-Syrian Lahoud has rejected repeated demands by Siniora and the parliamentary majority to step down. He has vowed to stay in office until his term expires in November next year.
Siniora, emboldened by Arab and international support for his U.S.-backed government, again vowed to stay in office despite Hezbollah protests.
In comments broadcast live on TV, the prime minister spoke to a group of supporters who visited him in his downtown Beirut office, which is ringed by barbed wire, troops in armored cars and riot police.
Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa denied on Wednesday his country was interfering in Lebanon’s internal affairs. Instead, he accused unnamed foreign powers of using Lebanon against Damascus. He added that Syria will not send back its army to Lebanon “no matter what happens.”
Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon last year under heavy international pressure after the assassination of a former prime minister. Syria’s Lebanese opponents blamed it for the killing, a charge Damascus has denied.
A young Shiite man belonging to an opposition party was shot dead on Sunday as he walked through a mainly Sunni Muslim neighborhood. The death raised fears of a return to the sectarian violence of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, when Beirut was divided into feuding Christian and Muslim districts.
Today’s divisions fall along different lines: Siniora’s government has widespread support among Sunnis, while its opponent, the pro-Syrian Hezbollah, is backed by Shiites.
Lebanon’s Christians largely support the government, though a major faction has allied with Hezbollah.