BEIRUT (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of Hezbollah-led protesters rallied on Friday at the doorstep of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to force the resignation of his U.S.-backed government.
"We want a clean government," one banner read. "Siniora out, we want a free, free government," the crowd chanted.
Hezbollah, Lebanon's most powerful Shi'ite Muslim group, and its pro-Syrian allies had called on Lebanese from across the country to take part in the 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. Speaking on behalf of the opposition, Aoun demanded a national unity government.
A senior opposition source said supporters who had imposed a blockade on the government offices from where Siniora and most of his ministers were monitoring the protest, later eased it and opened a road to the complex after contacts between opposition leaders and Arab diplomats.
"The government received our message," he said.
Several thousand opposition supporters set up tents near the offices and planned to spend the night there as part of the open-ended sit-in.
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.
Siniora and many ministers were inside while metres away, the crowds massed, waving red-and-white Lebanese flags under banners demanding a government of national unity.
Sources close to the organisers estimated the crowd at more than 1 million. Hezbollah deputy chief Sheikh Naim Kassem had 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 been at loggerheads with Siniora's government over what it says was its failure to back the group during the July-August war with Israel.
"The government was negligent during the war. That's why we want a national unity government," said resident Ali Aboud.
"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 install Syrian and Iranian tutelage over the country.
"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 Sunnis 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 trying 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.
(Additional reporting by Leila Bassam and Tom Perry)
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