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Huge Beirut rally demands prime minister quit

Story Highlights

200,000 protesters gather in Beirut for rally called for by Hezbollah
• Hezbollah leaders have called for end of Prime Minister Siniora's government
• Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun also urged Siniora to step down
• Siniora vowed there will be no coup
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BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- At least 200,000 people packed the streets of Beirut Friday, responding with cheers and applause as Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun called for Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to step down.

The rally -- which included Hezbollah and other groups opposed to Siniora's government -- stretched for blocks. Security sources said at least 200,000 people were involved, but video suggested the number was even higher. The Associated Press cited police estimates of 800,000 protesters.

Organizers had predicted as many as a million participants. (Watch thousands swarm streets for rally) Video

Following up a threat to challenge Siniora's government if it did not give in to key demands -- including giving Shiites enough Cabinet seats for veto power -- Hezbollah and other powers showed their strength in a battle for control of the Middle Eastern nation. (Watch security forces on high alert Video)

"I call on the prime minister to resign, and his colleagues," said Aoun, pausing for applause and cheers that echoed throughout the capital.

Aoun demanded "a national unity government" and added, "Long live Lebanon."

Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian groups -- including the Shiite group Amal -- had called on participants to wave Lebanese flags instead of Hezbollah flags, in a sign that they represent Lebanon itself. In previous Hezbollah rallies, many waved Hezbollah flags.

Siniora has said there will be no "coup," and that he has no plans to step down. (Full story)

His senior adviser Mohamad Chatah, as the protest was under way, said Lebanon has "a democratically elected parliament," and that if the government "were to succumb to this kind of pressure, it would make a mockery of the system at a time we are rebuilding a truly democratic Lebanon."

Shops were closed and main roads were heavily monitored by security forces. No violence had been reported.

"Siniora out! We want a free government!" protesters shouted through loudspeakers.

The crowd roared in approval amid the deafening sound of Hezbollah songs. "We want a clean government," read one banner, in what has become the opposition's motto.

Assassination sparked rally

The latest battle for political power was sparked by last week's assassination of an anti-Syrian leader, Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel. Numerous anti-Syrian figures have been assassinated in Lebanon in the past year. Damascus has denied any involvement.

Syria pulled its troops out of Lebanon two years ago when anti-Syrian rallies -- comprising the so-called "Cedar Revolution" -- swept through the country. That revolution followed the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who had called for Syria's ouster.

Hezbollah, a militant group and political party supported by Syria, was bolstered by a war with Israel during the summer.

'Difficult days'

Friday's rally was called by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, whose pro-Syrian ministers have resigned from the Lebanese Cabinet.

His deputy, Sheikh Naim Kassem, said the protests would not end 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.

Opposition supporters streamed into the center of Beirut for the rally. "We're here to bring down the government. We, the resistance, don't want any influence from the United States," Najwa Bouhamdan, 41, told Reuters.

"We're protesting so that the government knows that nobody wants Siniora," said Hamzi Mesheh, 18, a university student from Baalbek, who had a Lebanese flag tied around his head.

Members of the Siniora government blamed Syria for Gemayel's death last month and accused Syria of trying to prevent the Lebanese government from endorsing a U.N. tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the assassination of Hariri.

Since both incidents, Nasrallah has been emboldened by supporters in Syria and Iran to try to force Siniora's government to stand down in the face of popular protest.

Lebanon, a polyglot nation, has been held together since the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s by a Syrian occupation that ended after massive protests following Hariri's assassination.

The Lebanese constitution calls for specific roles for Lebanon's different interest groups that include Shiite, Sunnis and Druse among its Muslims as well as a Christian minority.

Nasrallah and Hezbollah want that constitution and the multiparty majority government overturned, feeling their resistance to Israel has given them the upper hand.


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