By ZEINA KARAM
The Associated Press
Friday, December 8, 2006; 2:46 PM
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Prime Minister Fuad Saniora on Friday accused Hezbollah's leader of threatening a coup in an unusually harsh exchange between the two rivals that stoked tensions as the Shiite guerrilla group escalated its attempts to oust the government.
Saniora spoke to hundreds of supporters in his fortified office, where he has lived for more than a week. Outside, pro-Hezbollah demonstrators in a nearby square replayed on loudspeakers a Thursday night speech in which their leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, accused the prime minister of siding with Israel during the July-August war.
The prime minister said Nasrallah "is threatening a coup and his statements carry all the seeds of dissension and threat."
Saniora criticized the Hezbollah leader for his attitude in the speech, in which he accused the prime minister of being "stubborn" and said members of the government were responsible for the war, which began after Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers.
"Who appointed you to say 'I am right and all else is false'?" the prime minister asked.
Saniora, who has received strong Western and Arab support, repeated that Hezbollah's protests, now in their eighth day, would not force his resignation. The pro-Syrian Hezbollah and its opposition allies have called for a huge demonstration Sunday, saying it will mark an escalation in their attempts to oust the U.S.-backed premier.
Hezbollah and its allies began demonstrating after Saniora rejected their demands for a third of the Cabinet's seats _ an effective veto.
Six pro-Hezbollah ministers resigned from the Cabinet last month over Saniora's refusal to accept the demand, depriving the government of any Shiite representation.
The political division has taken dangerous sectarian lines, with most Sunni Muslims supporting the Sunni prime minister and Shiites backing Hezbollah. Christian factions are split between the two camps.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned Friday the protests could escalate to "very serious confrontations and even lead to the destruction of Lebanon."
"I fear the consequences," Mubarak said in a TV interview on a visit to Paris. "There is also the risk of foreign interference," he added in a veiled reference to Syria and Iran, the sponsors of Hezbollah.
Hezbollah has not said what it plans to do next, but some Lebanese believe it might call for civil disobedience or escalate street protests, disrupting vital utilities such as Beirut airport. So far, however, Nasrallah has stressed that his supporters must demonstrate peacefully.
On Friday, Hezbollah protesters in the square near Saniora's office released red, white and green balloons _ the colors of the Lebanese flag _ bearing the words "Saniora, out."
Elsewhere in central Beirut, the spiritual leader of Lebanon's Sunnis backed the government and told worshippers Hezbollah's demands would not be met.
"Bringing down the government and prime minister in the street is a red line which we will never allow," Sheik Mohammed Rashid Kabbani said in a sermon at a Sunni mosque.
But another Sunni cleric, Fathi Yakan, who supports Hezbollah, led opposition protesters in prayer in a city square.
"Your sit-in today, with God's help, will defeat the American project," Yakan said, accusing the U.S. of sowing division between Shiites and Sunnis in the Islamic world.
On Thursday, Nasrallah said government officials had asked American envoys to persuade Israel to destroy Hezbollah and claimed that Saniora had ordered the Lebanese army to deprive Hezbollah of weapons.
"Didn't the prime minister of Lebanon work to cut off the supply lines?" Nasrallah asked.
The Lebanese army said Friday that it had received no such orders from the government during the 34-day war, but that troops did confiscate Hezbollah ammunition at one checkpoint.
Hezbollah replied by saying the troops would not have seized the ammunition without a "political decision" and that the army was telling only "half the truth."
Despite the exchange, both leaders have stressed they are willing to negotiate.
"Our hand and heart is open," Saniora said Friday. "We won't dig trenches in Beirut streets, we will build bridges of love among the Lebanese, Christian and Muslim."
Nasrallah and Saniora have welcomed this week's proposal by Lebanon's Maronite Catholic Church to form a new government and hold early presidential elections, saying it could serve as the basis for a settlement.
President Emile Lahoud, a staunch pro-Syrian, has refused to resign. He issued a statement Friday that praised Nasrallah's speech as carrying "responsible and clear positions."