BEIRUT, (Agencies) – Hundreds of thousands of flag-waving protesters flooded central Beirut on Sunday after a call by the Hezbollah-led opposition to step up their 10-day campaign to topple Lebanon’s Western-backed government.
In a show of force, the chanting crowds swamped two squares in the heart of the capital and rivers of men, women and children poured through surrounding streets demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
“Siniora out,” the crowds shouted. “Beirut is free,” others yelled as one of the biggest rallies in Lebanon’s history kicked off in bright sunshine. Giant loudspeakers blared out nationalist songs and drummers thudded a relentless beat.
The noise was clearly audible inside the nearby government headquarters where Siniora and most of his ministers are holed up. Armoured vehicles, rings of razor wire and hundreds of security forces guarded the former Ottoman fortress.
Opposition activists have paralysed the centre since Dec. 1 in a round-the-clock protest aimed at forcing Siniora and his Sunni-backed majority to form a government of national unity.
There were no official estimates of the size of Sunday’s crowd but one security source said it was the largest such gathering ever seen in Lebanon. “We will stay for days, weeks or months. Whatever it takes to bring down the government,” said Nader Hafez, a 21-year-old Shi’ite from Beirut.
Siniora has accused the Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah of trying to stage a coup following its 34-day war against Israel this year. Hezbollah says the prime minister and his anti-Syrian allies had wanted Israel to crush it.
Commentators warn the worsening stand-off could degenerate into widespread violence in a country that is still trying to rebuild after a 1975-90 civil war.
Siniora told a conference on Sunday the future of Lebanon was at stake, but said the country’s democracy was strong enough to absorb the shock of the protests.
“This challenge covers the vision of Lebanon’s future, the future of its system and its place in the region and the world.”
Thousands of soldiers and police tightened security in the capital before the demonstration, while at the rally site, an army of highly-organised Hezbollah volunteers checked bags in an effort to head off any potential trouble.
One Shi’ite protester has been killed and several people hurt in shooting incidents, riots and clashes between supporters of both sides over the past week.
Pope Benedict called on Lebanon on Sunday to back away from political crisis and asked the international community to help find urgent, peaceful solutions at this “grave moment”.
Hezbollah and its allies, who include a populist Christian party, want the power of veto in a new government and say if the demand is not met they will push for early elections.
The anti-government Ad-Diyar newspaper said the opposition would raise the stakes on Monday by calling strikes that would lead to a campaign of civil disobedience.
Siniora’s supporters say Hezbollah simply wants to derail plans to set up 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.