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French Version

Five wounded by gunshots in Lebanon protests

Five people were wounded by gunshots at dawn as militants blocked roads across the country at the start of a one-day strike called by the opposition in its latest bid to topple the Western-backed government.

Amid boosted security across the country, opposition militants blocked national highways in various regions and streets inside the capital as well as a main road leading to Beirut international airport.

Thick columns of smoke engulfed the capital and other cities, as demonstrators blocked roads by burning tyres and old cars, and spreading sand and rubble over roadways.

Army troops and security forces watched the demonstrators from a distance, mostly without interfering. In some instances, the troops moved in after the departure of the demonstrators to reopen the roads.

A source at the Free Patriotic Movement of Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun said five people were wounded by gunshots in separate incidents during protest actions in northern Lebanon.

The source said three FPM followers were wounded in the port city of Byblos. A fourth FPM follower and a member of the allied Marada Christian movement were wounded in the district of Koura.

A follower of the FPM was injured when an angry driver "ran her over intentionally" during protests in Beirut's eastern suburbs of Baabda, the source said.

Two of the wounded in Byblos were identified as Mark Howayek who was wounded by a bullet in the back and George Farah who received a shot in his stomach, according to sources at Lamartine Hospital where they were transported.

Witnesses told an AFP correspondent on the scene that the incident erupted in Byblos when gunmen fired at a group of opposition followers trying to block the road.

Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and other leaders of the anti-Syrian camp urged Lebanese to ignore the general strike, accusing the opposition of trying to "sabotage" a major international donor conference for Lebanon being held in Paris later this week.

The nationwide general strike marks the first major escalation by the opposition, led by fundamentalist Shiite Muslim party Hezbollah, since its supporters began a protest around government offices in Beirut on December 1.

The opposition is seeking to oust Siniora's government and replace it with a national unity cabinet in which it would have a veto.

Siniora warned that government forces would confront any attempts to disturb civil peace, after opposition figures vowed to shut main roads and paralyse the country.

Ahmad Raya, Hezbollah spokesman in the eastern Bekaa Valley, said main roads would be blocked for one day on Tuesday.

"The strike will be accompanied by gatherings," he said on Monday.

Some Beirut papers said the opposition may try to paralyse main ports and government institutions by asking employees to stay home.

A source at Beirut international airport told AFP that the closure of roads around the airport had not disrupted air traffic.

Christian leader Samir Geagea, a member of the anti-Syrian camp, called "on the Lebanese people to head to work tomorrow (Tuesday) because fateful choices for the future of Lebanon are at stake."

Druze leader MP Walid Jumblatt, a prominent figure in the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, insisted that Tuesday would be a normal work day and called on the army and security forces to prevent any major disruption.

"Enough closing factories and hotels, enough forcing out tourists and Lebanese elites... enough shutting down central Beirut," he said.

beirut 23-01-2007

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