BEIRUT — Tens of thousands of supporters of Lebanon’s pro-Western opposition thronged downtown Beirut yesterday, demanding that the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah give up its weapons.
The rally was a potent show of support for Lebanon’s toppled prime minister, Saad Hariri, who moved into the opposition after Hezbollah and its allies withdrew from his government in January, forcing him out of power.
“We want to place the weapons at the disposal of the state, because it is the state that unites us all and it is the army that protects us all,’’ Hariri said, shouting over the crowd as people cheered and waved Lebanon’s national flag.
Hariri has taken a far stronger public stance against Hezbollah in recent weeks than he did during his 14 months as prime minister, suggesting that the country’s political deadlock is far from over.
Ghaleb Abu Zeinab, a member of Hezbollah’s political bureau, said the group will not respond to yesterday’s gathering.
But a slew of billboards has popped up in Beirut lately, saying “Israel also wants Hezbollah disarmed’’ — a clear message that Hezbollah sees its weapons as a necessary safeguard against its enemies.
Hariri accused the militant group, which is backed by Syria and Iran, of using its weapons for intimidation and political leverage.
Yesterday’s rally heightens growing tensions in Lebanon over a UN tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father, Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister.
The Hague-based court is widely expected to accuse Hezbollah members of involvement in the killing in indictments issued two months ago but which remain sealed.
Hezbollah denies having anything to do with the killing, and its ministers walked out of Saad Hariri’s government when he refused to cut ties with the tribunal.