Lebanese army increases forces in tense capital

news4.jpgBEIRUT (Reuters) — Lebanon’s army deployed more soldiers in Beirut on Monday after the killing of a pro-Syrian Shiite demonstrator raised fears anti-government protests could turn into sectarian violence.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa warned the crisis could worsen and indicated he had discussed ideas for a solution with Lebanese officials during a 24-hour visit to Beirut.

Security sources said the military increased its forces in Sunni districts that Shiite protesters drive through to get to central Beirut where the Hizbollah-led opposition is holding a sit-in to try to topple the Western-backed government.

These districts saw clashes between residents and protesters on Sunday — from stone-throwing to fights with knives.

In the most serious incident, gunmen fired assault rifles at a group of protesters in a Sunni neighbourhood, a stronghold for the anti-Syrian majority coalition, killing one man.

The body of Ahmed Mahmoud was brought to the protest site, where thousands of anti-government demonstrators read Koranic verses over a coffin wrapped in a Lebanese flag.

The opposition plans a mass funeral on Tuesday and said the death would not halt its drive to unseat the government.

“Siniora out, we want a free government,” the crowd chanted during a night rally at the tent camp, referring to the Western-backed Sunni Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

A few thousand soldiers and police were deployed around Beirut on the fourth day of the protests. Troops sat atop armoured vehicles at road junctions.

Many politicians and observers have said the crisis could spill over into sectarian strife in a country that has gone through two civil wars in the last 50 years.

Lebanon’s most senior Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah called for unity.

“One of the most dangerous things is the devilish state of sectarian instigation by some political symbols … which is making the political dispute open to sectarian sensitivities,” Fadlallah said on Monday.

The leader of the anti-Syrian majority coalition, Sunni Saad Hariri also urged calm and asked his supporters to ignore what he called provocations.

Made in Lebanon

Musa met Lebanese leaders including Hizbollah officials during his brief visit. “The whole Arab arena can’t stand by and watch a situation that could develop to the worse,” he said.

Asked about his plans to resolve the problems, he said: “It is still at its beginnings, but I see that it is a start that gives some hope.” Pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud welcomed Musa’s efforts but said the Lebanese should settle the crisis themselves. “We learnt this from experience,” his office quoted him as saying.

The Shiite Hizbollah is backed by Syria and Iran, and has repeatedly criticised Siniora’s government, saying it failed to back the group during its summer war with Israel.

The opposition, which includes some Christians, has been demanding veto power in the government, made up of anti-Syrian politicians from Christian, Sunni and Druze parties.

But these politicians say the opposition only wants to weaken the government and derail a UN tribunal that would try suspects in the 2005 murder of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.

A preliminary UN inquiry has implicated Syrian and Lebanese security officials in the killing, which eventually forced Syrian forces to withdraw from Lebanon last year.

In Damascus, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged Syria to persuade Hizbollah to end the demonstrations.

“I call on Syria to avoid any actions which directly or indirectly might lead to the destabilisation of Lebanon,” he said after meeting President Bashar Assad.

Assad was quoted by the official Syrian news agency SANA as telling Steinmeier: “Syria is part of the solution, not the problem. We don’t interfere in the affairs of anyone.” Thousands of protesters spent a fourth day at the tent city that has sprouted in central Beirut outside the main government complex where Siniora was spending his days and nights.

Many banks and businesses were closed on Monday in the downtown area, Lebanon’s banking and commercial centre. Business owners in the area have said a lengthy closure could devastate businesses and force employers to cut jobs.

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