Hizbullah supporters continue anti-gov't protest

Thousands camp out in central Beirut in bid to overthrow Saniora; PM remains defiant, calls on Hibullah to return to negotiating table.

lebanon protest 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
lebanon protest 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Thousands of Hizbullah supporters set up camp in the heart of Beirut on Saturday in a carnival-like, open-ended sit-in, vowing to topple the US-backed government of Fuad Saniora through street pressure. But the political crisis, which has disrupted life in the capital's commercial district and threatens to erupt into violence, was likely to drag on for days _ if not weeks _ as each side stuck to its guns. Saniora, who has been holed up in his office only few meters (yards) from the protesters, made clear he has no intention of stepping down and urged Hizbullah to abandon its protests. "This government will continue as long as it enjoys the support and backing of the constitutional institutions in the country, most importantly Parliament," he told reporters Saturday. He called on Hizbullah to return to the negotiating table but offered no suggestions for how that might happen. "Taking to the streets will not lead us anywhere ... There is just one way to solve our problems and that is to sit behind a table to discuss all our differences," he said. "Other than that it is a waste of time, waste of resources and waste of opportunities," Saniora added. As he spoke, thousands of Hizbullah supporters were noisily clamoring around hundreds of tents set up in central Beirut, where they vowed to stay until Saniora's government falls. Hizbullah's support among Shiites skyrocketed after its strong showing in its war with Israel over the summer, and that has in part emboldened the group to demand a greater role in government. Six pro- Hizbullah ministers resigned last month after the group's demand for a national unity government that would effectively give its and its allies veto power was rejected by the anti-Syrian majority. Hezbollah and its allies contend the real fight is against American influence, saying the United States now dominates Lebanon in the interests of Israel. "This government is a puppet. Saniora's Cabinet takes its orders from (US President George W.) Bush and has lunch with (US Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice while its own people are being killed," said Hussein Shuqair, a 20-year-old student. Many in Lebanon, particularly Hizbullah supporters, were angered by TV footage of Lebanese government officials having lunch with Rice at the U.S. Embassy during Israel's 34-day bombing blitz against Lebanon, at a time the US was seen as encouraging the Israeli bombing campaign aimed at destroying Hizbullah 's military capabilities. "This government promised a lot of things but did not deliver and that's why it must go," said Shuqair, as he sat eating a cheese sandwich on a white plastic chair outside his tent. On Friday, hundreds of thousands of Hizbullah supporters flooded downtown Beirut, the Lebanese capital, in a massive, peaceful demonstration, chanting nationalist slogans and songs just outside the main government offices. Barbed wire and armored vehicles separated the demonstrators from government headquarters where Saniora and some of his ministers have hunkered down. Following the demonstration, participants set up hundreds of white tents across the downtown area _ a dozen or so just 50 meters (yards) from Saniora's offices. Hizbullah's Al-Manar television station said about 500 tents were pitched in central Beirut. Hizbullah supporters set up water tanks and portable latrines and distributed sandwiches, tea and coffee to those camped out. Young men sprawled on mats in and outside their white tents under the bright, warm sun. Some read newspapers, others smoked water pipes. Dozens of white-capped Hizbullah workers swept the streets, littered with leftover food and drinks from the night before. Men performed their prayers on the pavement. "If Saniora had one ounce of feeling, he would resign," said Aya Mughniyeh, a 20-year-old Hizbullah supporter dressed in black from head to toe. Friday's protest was the opening volley in Hizbullah's campaign of open-ended demonstrations. The event could be a watershed for the future of Lebanese politics, torn between anti-Syrian politicians who control the government and pro-Syrian forces led by Hizbullah. Hizbullah and its allies say the resignation of Shiite ministers has rendered the Cabinet illegitimate, citing Lebanon's constitution, which says the Cabinet should represent all the country's religious groups. Saniora and his supporters call the campaign a coup attempt led by neighboring Syria and its ally Iran, a stance echoed by Washington. Lebanon is one of a number of areas in the Middle East where the United States and Iran are vying for influence. Backing for Saniora also came from France, Britain, Italy, Germany, and from Arab leaders including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, according to a statement from Saniora's office. Following talks with Saniora in Beirut, visiting British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said the government has been elected by the Lebanese people. "I believe the world community supports the constitutional government," she said. In a telephone call, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin told the embattled Lebanese premier he had "France's full support," de Villepin's office said in a statement. Italian Premier Romano Prodi in Rome also said that he spoke to Saniora and found him "determined to go on and resist intimidation." Syrian state-run newspapers, meanwhile, voiced support for the Hizbullah protest action with one daily calling it "the most sincere expression" of Lebanon's reality and national unity. "Will the government respond, or is it determined to lead Lebanon into the unknown?" it asked.