Crowd gives Lebanese government an ultimatum

Published December 11, 2006

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Hundreds of thousands of Hezbollah members and their allies flooded central Beirut on Sunday demanding changes in the government's makeup as soldiers strung more barbed wire around the offices of the Western-backed prime minister.

Buoyed by the big turnout after a week of street protests, the pro-Syria opposition gave Prime Minister Fuad Saniora an ultimatum of a "few days" to accept its demand to form a national unity government with a big role for Hezbollah or face an escalating campaign to oust him.

Saniora, who has been holed up in his fortified office downtown, rejected the demand and urged his foes to resume negotiations. The opposition should "return to the constitutional institutions to discuss differences and reach real solutions," he said in a written statement.

Political unrest has split the country along sectarian lines, with most Sunni Muslims supporting the Sunni prime minister and Shiite Muslims backing the militant Hezbollah. Christian factions are split between the two camps.

But despite the heated rhetoric of the political confrontation, Sunday's mass gathering remained peaceful and left the door open to the possibility of a settlement.

"Hopefully it won't be long. At the end, there will be no winner, no vanquished. We should all be winners," Saad Hariri, leader of Parliament's anti-Syria majority and a Saniora supporter, told the Associated Press.

Pro-government groups staged a rival demonstration that drew tens of thousands in the northern port city of Tripoli.