* Hariri says weapons must be under state control
* Tens of thousands crowd central Beirut
* Hezbollah says needs to keep weapons to fight Israel
By Yara Bayoumy
BEIRUT, March 13 (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
"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
The crowd looked much thinner than the one which rallied a
month after Rafik al-Hariri's Feb. 14, 2005, killing and
demanded Syria end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon.
(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Editing by Richard
© 2017 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.