BEIRUT, Lebanon – Prime Minister Fuad Saniora appealed Wednesday to those who are trying to topple him through mass protests to stop "digging bunkers," return to the negotiating table, and help rebuild Lebanon.
Separately, the Maronite Catholic Church called for parliament to convene to settle the political crisis and proposed the formation of a new government as a way out of the deadlock.
The call by Lebanon's biggest church, issued after a meeting of its bishops, was seen not as a withdrawal of support for Saniora — whom the church has supported — but as urging the politicians to do whatever is necessary to end the crisis quickly.
In its statement, the church avoided the term "national unity government," as demanded by Hezbollah, and proposed the formation of a "reconciliation government that ensures wide participation on the national level."
In comments broadcast live on TV, the prime minister spoke to a group of supporters who visited him in his downtown Beirut office, which is ringed by barbed wire, troops in armored cars and riot police.
A few meters from his offices, thousands of his opponents held a noisy demonstration — the sixth straight day of protests called by Hezbollah to bring down the Saniora government because it has rejected demands to give the pro-Hezbollah factions a veto-wielding share of the Cabinet.
Saniora said that like his opponents, he and his political allies could also call "hundreds of thousands" of people to take to the streets, but the issue should not be a contest in numbers.
"The contest ought to be for the rebuilding of the country," he said.
"We believe in freedom," Saniora said, "but freedom ends when it tramples on the freedom of others."
"We want to build Lebanon, not to dig bunkers" in Beirut's neighborhoods, Saniora said, referring to the frequent street clashes between pro- and anti-government supporters in which one protester has been killed.
He urged the opposition to return to the negotiating table, saying Lebanon's problems could not be solved by the protests that have disrupted Beirut for the past week.
A young Shiite man belonging to an opposition party was shot dead Sunday as he walked through a mainly Sunni Muslim neighborhood. Saniora's government is backed by Sunni and Christian parties.
Saniora paid tribute to the dead man, Ahmed Mahmoud, and lamented the fact that "instead of being on the border defending Lebanon, he fell in a Beirut street."
He commended the victim's family for not seeking revenge and praised Sheik Abdul-Amir Kabalan, a senior Shiite cleric, for declaring that it was religiously forbidden for Muslims to kill fellow Muslims, or Christians or Druse and vice versa.
Sunday's attack raised fears of a return to the sectarian violence of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, when Beirut was divided into feuding Christian and Muslim districts.
Today's divisions fall along different lines: Saniora's government has widespread support among Sunnis, while its opponent, the pro-Syrian Hezbollah, is backed by Shiites. Lebanon's Christians largely support the government, though a major faction has allied with Hezbollah.
Troops and armored cars have taken up positions in various parts of Beirut. Apart from Saniora's office complex. Soldiers are also on duty in the Sunni and mixed neighborhoods where nightly riots with sticks, bottles and sometimes gunfire have occurred.
The current political turmoil was triggered by last month's resignation of six pro-Hezbollah ministers after Saniora and the anti-Syrian majority in parliament rejected the group's demand for a new national unity government that would effectively give it and its allies a third of the Cabinet's seats.
Hezbollah says it will continue its protest campaign until Saniora agrees to step down. The prime minister — emboldened by Arab and U.S. support — has vowed to stay in office.
The standoff shows no sign of waning despite the calls from the two sides for dialogue and the intervention of Arab intermediaries. The Arab League secretary general has visited Lebanon to try to mediate as did Jordan's foreign minister. Egypt's envoy has been making the rounds.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held talks with the Syrian president in Damascus Wednesday on the situation in Lebanon, as well as Iraq.
Saniora said he didn't want Lebanon to become a battlefield for outsiders — a veiled reference to Iran and Syria in their struggle against the United States and the West.
The opposition, on the other hand, accuses the government of taking orders from America whose support for Israel is widely resented in the country.
Saniora said his government had worked hard to end the devastating five-week war with Israel last summer and had subsequently deployed troops in southern Lebanon.
"We are committed to our Arabism, democracy and coexistence," Saniora said and dismissed Hezbollah's charges that his government was a puppet of the United States.