BEIRUT (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of supporters of Lebanon’s toppled premier Saad al-Hariri rallied in Beirut on Sunday, calling for the Shi’ite group Hezbollah which ousted him to put its weapons under state control.
The demonstration in Martyrs’ Square was intended as a show of strength for the billionaire Sunni politician, who has gone into opposition after the collapse in January of his fractious 14-month unity government, which included Hezbollah ministers.
“It is impossible for weapons to stay raised against the will of a democratic people and against the truth,” Hariri told the crowd, who waved Lebanese flags and banners of his Future Movement.
“We want to put (weapons) under the control and authority of the state because it’s the army which protects us all.”
Hariri’s forceful speech — in marked contrast to his muted style as prime minister — escalated the political confrontation with Hezbollah that was triggered by a U.N.-backed investigation into the 2005 assassination of his father, Rafik al-Hariri.
Hezbollah members are expected to be named in still secret indictments issued two months ago by the Hague-based court investigating the killing.
Hezbollah has denied any involvement, and brought down Saad al-Hariri’s government after he refused to cut Lebanon’s links to the court.
“The people want the overthrow of weapons,” demonstrators chanted, playing on the slogans of protesters who overthrew presidents in Egypt and Tunisia and challenged Arab leaders across the region.
Hezbollah, the only Lebanese faction allowed to keep its weapons after the 1975-90 civil war, says it needs them to defend Lebanon from possible Israeli attack. Israel and Hezbollah fought to a standstill in a 34-day war in 2006.
But Hezbollah opponents accuse the group of using weapons to intimidate political rivals, pointing to a May 2008 conflict when gunmen took over parts of western Beirut after the government moved against Hezbollah’s communications network.
After Hariri’s government fell in January, Sunni telecoms tycoon Najib Mikati was appointed prime minister designate with the backing of Hezbollah and its political allies. Six weeks on, Mikati is still seeking to form a government.
“It is impossible for any of us to once again agree that Lebanon falls under any tutelage, whether it’s tutelage from outside or the tutelage of weapons from inside,” Hariri said.
Both Lebanon’s main political camps have outside backing, with Hezbollah supported by Syria and Iran and Hariri enjoying U.S. and Saudi backing. A huge banner of Saudi King Abdullah hung from one building nearby. “It is impossible for us to give up our freedom, impossible for us to give up our Arab identity, impossible for us to give up truth and justice,” Hariri said, referring to the tribunal investigating his father’s killing.
Politicians from both sides of Lebanon’s political divide were watching closely to see how many people would turn out to support Hariri.
The crowd looked much thinner than the one which rallied a month after Rafik al-Hariri’s February 14, 2005, killing and demanded Syria end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon.
Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Editing by Richard Meares