BEIRUT,(Reuters) – A sea of flag-waving protesters demanded on Friday the resignation of Lebanon’s Western-backed government at a Hezbollah-led rally, but Prime Minister Fouad Siniora appeared unmoved by the pressure.
Pro-Syrian Hezbollah and its allies had called on Lebanese from across the country to take part in the opposition protest in the capital Beirut, to be followed by an indefinite sit-in near the government offices.
Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, has branded the government a U.S. puppet. “I call on the prime minister and his ministers to quit,” Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun said to the cheers of protesters in downtown Beirut. “We want a clean government,” one banner read. “Siniora out, we want a free, free government,” the crowd chanted.
Large numbers of security forces, backed by armoured troop carriers, were deployed. Scores of soldiers, using barbed wire and metal barriers, cordoned off the complex housing the government’s offices in downtown Beirut.
Siniora and many ministers were inside while less than 30 metres away, the crowds gathered, waving red-and-white Lebanese flags under banners demanding a government of national unity.
Hezbollah television station al-Manar said hundreds of thousands had turned up, and Hezbollah deputy chief Sheikh Naim Kassem said before the protests the campaign would continue until Siniora’s cabinet fell. “This government will not take Lebanon to the abyss. We have several steps if this government does not respond but I tell them you will not be able to rule Lebanon with an American administration,” he told Hezbollah’s al-Manar television.
Hezbollah has criticised Siniora’s cabinet over what it says was its failure to back Hezbollah during the July-August war with Israel. “The government was negligent during the war. That’s why we want a national unity government,” Ali Aboud, from south Lebanon, told Reuters. “We’re here to bring down the government. We, the resistance, don’t want any influence from the United States,” opposition supporter Najwa Bouhamdan, 41, said.
Siniora said on Thursday his government would not quit. The anti-Syrian politicians who control the cabinet say the Shi’ite Muslim group and its allies want to stage a coup.
The government was weakened last month by the resignation of six opposition ministers and the Nov. 21 assassination of anti-Syrian Christian cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel. His funeral drew tens of thousands into central Beirut, with many mourners accusing Damascus of being behind the killing.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, the most prominent anti-Syrian leader, urged supporters to remain calm and avoid street confrontations. He said Hezbollah wanted to instate Syrian and Iranian tutelage over the country. “Very calmly, we will remain steadfast,” he told a news conference on Friday. “We will confront (the opposition) calmly. We will remain in our houses and fly the Lebanese flags… We will wait for a month, for two months… and watch them.”
Many Lebanese fear protests could turn violent. Tension between Sunni Muslims and Shi’ites is high, as is bad feeling between Christians who support leaders allied to the rival camps.
The anti-Syrian camp accuses the opposition of aiming to bring down the government to derail an international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, whose killing in 2005 many blame on Damascus.
Syria denied involvement but was forced to pull its troops out of Lebanon in April 2005 by international pressure led by the United States and France and huge anti-Syrian protests.
A U.N. inquiry has implicated Syrian and Lebanese security officials in the killing. Siniora’s depleted cabinet approved U.N. plans last week for the Hariri court.