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Protes di Lebanon semakin membara

Protests bring Lebanon to a standstill

Guardian Unlimited, January 23, 2007 - Thousands of demonstrators brought much of Lebanon to a standstill today as they blocked key transport routes to enforce a general strike aimed at toppling the government.

Clustering in small groups around roadblocks of burning tyres, supporters of the opposition Hizbullah party intensified protests that have been going on for nearly two months. (Picture top - Smoke from burning tyres and debris hangs over Beirut as thousands of demonstrators enforcing a general strike aimed at toppling the government brought much of Lebanon to a standstill. Photograph: Hussein Malla/AP)

Television pictures showed clouds of thick black smoke hanging over Beirut. Commuters were stranded and an unusual silence hung over many commercial districts.

Police said 14 people had sustained gunshot wounds in isolated disturbances between opposition supporters and pro-government activists in central and northern Lebanon. There were unconfirmed reports that a man later died of his injuries.

Click to watch video from BBC. Police and troops across the country were working to open roads, sometimes negotiating with protesters, but they refrained from using force. In some instances, the military separated the two opposing sides as they exchanged insults and stones.

Blazing roadblocks cut off the road to Beirut international airport and several flights were cancelled.

The Hizbullah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, called the strike as part of opposition attempts to bring down the pro-western government of the prime minister, Fouad Siniora, install a new administration and hold early parliamentary elections.

Witnesses said demonstrators had shut down much of downtown and suburban Beirut, as well as other areas around the country. Many workers stayed at home, either in support of the strike or simply fearing violence. Some schools that had said they were open later sent mobile text messages to parents announcing closures because of the unrest.

Government officials described the disturbances as an attempted coup.

"It is one of the chapters of the putsch," the telecommunications minister, Marwan Hamadeh, told al-Arabiya television. "This will fail, as in the past, and the legitimate government of Lebanon will remain steadfast." In another television interview, he called the protesters "thugs".

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

The strike came two days before Mr Siniora and his economic team were due to 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 $5bn (£2.5bn), would only increase the national debt and further weaken the economy, already hit hard by last year's war between Hizbullah guerrillas and Israel.

Opposition supporters have been camped out in front of the prime minister's office in Beirut and have staged several protests since December 1. Troops have been deployed in central Beirut for weeks.

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