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French Version

General strike imposes virtual travel blockade on embattled capital

Mountains of smoldering tires, burning garbage, and rubble blocked all major routes in and out of Beirut Tuesday, including the only highways leading to the international airport and the port, causing daily life to grind to a halt once again.

Bands of teenage opposition supporters manned the makeshift barricades lining both highways linking Lebanon to Syria and the Airport Road, effectively imposing a travel embargo on the capital since early Tuesday morning.

Though Rafik Hariri International Airport officially remained open, most foreign carriers cancelled scheduled flights to and from Lebanon and about 300 travelers and 150 Chinese peacekeeping troops remained marooned inside.

"We have been locked in the airport all day," one civil aviation official told The Daily Star from his office inside the main passenger terminal. "Very few people have managed to escape today," he added.

He was still in his office at 8 pm, where he expected to remain throughout the evening.

As The Daily Star went to press, reports emerged that the opposition was lifting the strike and reopening the roads.

A high-ranking official at Lebanon's national airline, Middle East Airlines (MEA), who refused to go on the record said the carrier was "living day by day" and had no idea what MEA's schedule would be like on Wednesday.

"We don't know anything and can only wait," he said on condition of anonymity.

"The roads are closed and people cannot leave the airport," he told The Daily Star. "A few got out and walked, but five planes have arrived and the passengers are just sitting in the airport. We are providing food and shelter to most of them until we figure out what to do next. "

Flights from Kuwait City, Dubai, Paris, Geneva, Frankfurt, and London all departed to Beirut after news of the airport blockade was announced. Each landed successfully, but arriving passengers were not able to leave the airport.

The head of the Civil Aviation Authority did not respond to calls to confirm rumors that stranded passengers would be flown to Cyprus.

"They knew [about the disturbances] and they wanted to come anyway," he explained.

A few would-be passengers who did attempt to leave Lebanon on Tuesday - and make the smoky 10-kilometer trek from Beirut with their baggage - were allegedly turned away by opposition supporters camped at the terminal entrance.

One eyewitness who reached the airport on foot said Hizbullah security men told two or three passengers they would have to change their tickets and refused to allow them inside.

Captain Roy Deffaro, the head of the MEA Pilots Syndicate, was among the many airport staffers who did not attend work Tuesday.

"I'm not flying because I'm not at the airport. There are burning tires outside my door," he said on the telephone from his home in Hazmieh. "Yes, the airport is officially open and officially we are not on strike, but unfortunately because of the situation right now we cannot fly."

Like other, Deffaro said he had no idea what would happen on Wednesday.

Since major roads remained impassable by car, most Beirutis stayed in their respective neighborhoods. For the few who did work, Tuesday was anything but business as usual.

Alfa Taxi in Achrafieh was open, but only three of 15 drivers it employs came to work, either because they joined the strike or because they could not reach headquarters.

"It doesn't matter that no one showed up because people were barely moving," said a manager who would only give his first name, Said. "We are going between Achrafieh and Furn al-Shebbak only, and you can't drive between East and West Beirut. No one knows what will happen tomorrow."

The director general of roads and buildings at the Public Works and Transport Ministry was also unsure of whether roads would be open on Wednesday, but said he would go to work as he had done Tuesday.

"Even today we don't know what the end of the day will look like," Fadi Nammar said.

The opposition called an end to the strike shortly before 10 p.m. Though no debris was removed, witnesses said tire-burning had stopped. Traffic was seen on small streets in Ouzai, and a few shops opened their doors.

Beirut 24-01-2007
Lysandra Ohrstrom
The Daily Star

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