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French Version

At least eight dead as Beirut protests get ugly

Opposition parties tell members to leave streets, army begins investigation into shootings

At least eight people were killed and about 22 others wounded in Beirut on Sunday in some of the worst internal violence since Lebanon's 1975-1990 Civil War, raising tensions in a country gripped by a political crisis.

Riots continued until late Sunday night, and as The Daily Star went to press The Lebanese Army had still not contained violence which erupted in Beirut's southern suburbs.

Sunday's protest began in the Mar Mikhael area of southern Beirut, near the site of the massacre of Palestinians that triggered the Civil War.

The violence spiraled after an activist from the opposition Amal Movement, Ali Hassan Hamza, was shot dead, reportedly as was urging members of his group to heed army calls to break up an angry demonstration against power cuts.

Late on Sunday a hand grenade was tossed in the neighborhood of Ain al-Rummaneh, the Christian neighborhood parallel to Mar Mikhael, wounding four people.

The army, which has labored to remain neutral in the crisis, had fired in the air to disperse the initial protest. It said it was investigating who was behind the shooting.

Heavy gunfire was heard and gunmen were seen in both Shiite and Christian neighborhoods. Several cars were set ablaze in Beirut and protests spread beyond the capital to Shiite villages in the South and the Bekaa Valley to the east.

Protesters used blazing tires to block several main roads, including the highway to the airport in violence that outstripped that witnessed a year ago when clashes between supporters of the ruling March 14 Forces coalition and its opposition rivals claimed five lives.

The opposition has been locked in a power struggle for more than a year with the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The conflict has fueled sectarian tensions between Shiites loyal to the opposition and Sunni followers of the Siniora government, as well as Christian factions on both sides.

At least four of the dead were close to Hizbullah, which together with Amal has the support of the Shiite population.

Security sources said one soldier was hurt when protesters threw stones during the initial protest.

Amal, led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, called on its followers to halt the protests. "We have no link to this action. We call on people not to react. We call on them to pull out of the streets," Amal MP Ayyub Humayyed told LBCI television.

Hizbullah, which leads the opposition alliance, used loudspeakers to urge calm.

In a statement, March 14 accused the opposition of stirring chaos in Lebanon "to serve Syrian and Iranian interests."

As night fell gunfire rang out sporadically across the southern suburbs.

A car that had been set on fire exploded, triggering panic in Beirut, where only two days ago a massive car bombing killed a top intelligence officer and four other people.

A senior security official warned that the riots could spread unless politicians reigned in their supporters.

"The politicians alone can decide whether to contain their followers or to give them the green light to spread mayhem," the official told AFP. "But all indications are that the situation will escalate and that these protests will become our daily fare."

At about 6:30 p.m., scores of opposition supporters briefly blocked a coastal road between the southern cities of Tyre and Sidon to protest the shooting of Hamza, according to residents in the area. In the eastern Bekaa Valley, several roads were blocked by opposition supporters. Both areas are predominantly Shiite and famously lacking in government services such as electricity.

Demonstrators have faced off with security forces on several occasions in recent days over power cuts and rising prices.

On Thursday hundreds of people blocked roads and prevented travelers from reaching the airport amid a nationwide labor strike over rising prices.

Electricity cutoffs in recent months were extended for the first time to Beirut, where more than 1 million Lebanese live. More than 10 years after Lebanon's Civil War, the country's power grid has still not been fully restored, and such protests have been common in the past weeks, mainly in areas where the opposition has strong support.

Sunday's unrest came as Arab League foreign ministers were meeting in Cairo to try to find a solution to Lebanon's political crisis and by getting feuding Lebanese politicians to elect a new president to fill a seat that has been vacant since midnight November 23.

The commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, General Michel Suleiman - who is tipped to be president if the ruling majority and the opposition can agree - warned last week that "any action that could trigger civil conflict is banned."

Beirut 28-01-2008
The Daily Star

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