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French Version

Block roads in Lebanon

Thousands of opposition protesters blocked roads with burning tires, debris and blazing cars around the Lebanese capital of Beirut and outlying regions of Lebanon on Tuesday, stranding motorists and workers in a bid to enforce a general strike aimed at toppling Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's government.

Scattered violence was reported. At least three opposition supporters were shot and wounded in the port city of Byblos when gunmen opened fire, opposition legislator Abbas Hashem told Al Arabiya satellite television. In Batroun in the north, the opposition said two of its supporters also were shot.

The strike was called by Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and other opposition leaders. But Saniora and his pro-government supporters urged all Lebanese to ignore the call.

The commute to work Tuesday has become a test of strength between the government and Hezbollah-led opposition. Although both leaders sought to avoid violence, tension in the streets between their supporters was already high even before dawn.

Opposition activists turned out early in the morning to burn tires on major highways north, south and east of the city as well as a ring road around downtown Beirut, sending black clouds of smoke billowing into the air, witnesses said. Soldiers and firefighters moved in to remove the obstacles.

On some highways, protesters brought in old cars and set them ablaze to block the roads, television stations reported. Others brought in dump trucks that unloaded debris on roads to close approaches to cities.

The road to Beirut international airport was blocked, as was the highway linking Beirut with the mountains and the road to Damascus, the Syrian capital.

Troops attempted to peacefully reopen roads but avoided using force to disperse the protesters, who numbered in the thousands across the country.

Airport officials said the country's only international air facility remained operating as normal, albeit with a fewer staff. Two flights left early in the morning with passengers.

Government officials described the disturbances as an attempted coup.

"It is one of the chapters of the putsch," Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh said of the opposition action. "This will fail as in the past, and the legitimate government of Lebanon will remain steadfast."

He said the disturbances could last more than one day but warned "patience is not unlimited," he told Al-Arabiya television.

Another Cabinet minister, Ahmed Fatfat, said there were some injuries in scuffles between opposition supporters and their opponents and expressed concern of more violence between the rivals.

"The opposition is attempting a coup by force ... This is not a strike. This is military action, a true aggression, and I'm afraid this could develop into clashes between the citizens," Fatfat, the youth and sports minister, told Al-Arabiya.

The strike has deepened divisions among Lebanese. It was backed by Lebanon's main labor union, but banking associations and business leaders have urged employees to report to work.

The anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, made up of mostly Sunni Muslims, Druse and Christians, backs Saniora. The opposition is led by the pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, and includes also some Druse and Christians.

Scores of opposition supporters took the streets, and in some instances security forces stood by and watched. On the coastal highway north of Beirut at the Christian town of Jal el-Dib, opposition activists mobbed a fire engine and forced it to retreat. On the mountain road at Antelias, the very few motorists maneuvered their way around burning tires to pass through. One got out of his car and kicked away a burning tire to clear a path.

In the Beirut commercial district of Mar Elias in the Muslim sector of Beirut, opposition activists used burning tires to block a column of army armored personnel carriers from deploying in the area.

The planned strike came two days before Saniora and his economic team seek financial aid for Lebanon at an international donors' conference in Paris. The opposition has also said the grants and loans -- which local analysts set at around US$5 billion (euro3.1 billion) -- would only increase the national debt and further weaken the economy. The summer war between Hezbollah's guerrillas and Israel deepened Lebanon's economic woes.

Nasrallah has said the donors' conference opening Thursday aims at shoring up the Saniora government.

"Hezbollah calls on all of you to take part in an effective and powerful manner in the opposition's declared strike," Nasrallah told a crowd of thousands in a public square in the southern suburbs of Beirut on Monday evening.

"If this (Saniora) team stays in power, we are headed toward economic collapse," added Nasrallah.

Hours earlier, the prime minister criticized Hezbollah's tactics, saying the Iranian- and Syrian-backed group wanted to give the world "a disturbing picture of Lebanon."

"We call on all the Lebanese to ignore the scare-mongering campaign," said Saniora.

Saniora said people should have faith in the security forces, and their capacity to ensure security and freedom.

Nasrallah urged Hezbollah supporters to avoid trouble, saying: "We do not want to fight anyone. We do not want any bloodshed."

He reiterated the demand by Hezbollah and its allies for a veto-wielding share of the Cabinet -- a request that Saniora has rejected.

At his news conference, Saniora extended a hand to the opposition, repeating his offer to enlarge the Cabinet to include more of the Hezbollah alliance's representatives, but falling short of their demand for veto powers.

The opposition has been camped out in front of the prime minister's office in downtown Beirut and staged several protests to press its demands since Dec. 1. Troops have been deployed in central Beirut for weeks to keep order. But the action has largely been peaceful.

beirut 23-01-2007

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