Tiny Minority of Extremists Update. “3 killed as protesters paralyze Lebanon,” by Sam F. Ghattas for Associated Press:
BEIRUT, Lebanon – Hezbollah-led protesters paralyzed Lebanon Tuesday, clashing with government supporters and burning tires and cars on roads in and around the capital to enforce a general strike aimed at toppling U.S.-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. Three people were killed and dozens injured.
What had been planned as a peaceful work-stoppage around the country turned into the worst violence since the pro-Syrian Shiite Hezbollah and its allies launched a campaign two months ago to oust the government.
In a televised speech, Saniora called for a special session of parliament to defuse the crisis, and gave every indication that he intended to stay in office.
“We will stand together against intimidation and confront sedition for the sake of Lebanon,” he said. He added he remained ready for talks with the opposition.
Police said three people were killed and 43 others sustained gunshot wounds in clashes in the towns of central and northern Lebanon, including two bodyguards of a prominent pro-government politician. Commuters were stranded and business came to halt in many parts of the capital.
“The opposition is attempting a coup by force,” Cabinet minister Ahmed Fatfat said. “This is not a strike. This is military action, a true aggression and I’m afraid this could develop into clashes between citizens,” Fatfat, the youth and sports minister, told Al-Arabiya television.
Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and other opposition leaders called the strike, which was backed by labor unions. The Hezbollah-led opposition is demanding a new coalition government giving them more power, which Saniora has rejected.
The opposition has been camped out since Dec. 1 in front of the prime minister’s office in downtown Beirut and has staged several protests to
press its demands but Tuesday’s strike escalated the nearly two-month demonstration. Troops have been deployed in central Beirut for weeks to keep order. But the action has largely been peaceful.
The conflict has strained the already fragile sectarian lines in a country that fought a 1975-1990 civil war between Muslims and Christians. In the current power struggle, Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims largely support Saniora, while the Shiites back Hezbollah and the opposition. Many Christians back Saniora.
Nicholas Burns, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, called Tuesday for Arabs, the U.S. and Europe to support Saniora.
“We have indications they will try to go into the streets this week to overturn a democratically elected government, through the rule of people in the streets, through mobs,” he said in a speech in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Meanwhile, black clouds billowed over parts of Beirut as opposition supporters set up burning roadblocks on main routes and at entrances to the capital, as well as in other major cities to enforce the strike. Opposition supporters clustered in small groups to man blazing roadblocks.
Police and troops deployed by the thousands across the country in an attempt to open roads and break up clashes. In some cases, troops negotiated the lifting of roadblocks. Elsewhere, they charged crowds to separate battling protesters and push open
Hezbollah’s deputy leader, Sheik Naim Kassem, told al-Jazeera television that the opposition would decide later in the day whether to call off the action or continue the escalating campaign.
“It was very successful and a clear message” to the government and its international backers, said Kassem.
Other opposition activists expressed frustration that the protests so far had not succeeded. Many workers stayed home, either in support of the strike or in fear of violence. Some schools closed due to unrest.
Blazing roadblocks cut off the road to Beirut international airport and the highway linking Beirut with the mountains and the road to Damascus, the Syrian capital.