BEIRUT (AP) â€” Opposition protesters burned tyres and cars in the streets and clashed with government supporters, paralysing Beirut and areas across Lebanon on Tuesday in the worst violence yet in the pro-Iranian Hizbollah’s campaign to topple US-backed Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.
At least three people were killed and dozens more injured in the turmoil as protesters from the two camps battled each other around street barricades with stone-throwing and in some cases gunfire. Black smoke poured into the sky over Beirut from burning roadblocks set up by opposition protesters.
The fighting quickly took on a dangerous sectarian tone in a country whose divided communities fought a bloody 1975-1990 civil war. Gunmen from two neighbouring districts in the northern city of Tripoli â€” one largely Sunni, the other largely Alawites, a Shiite offshoot â€” fought each other, causing two of the fatalities.
In the evening, the opposition announced it would call off the roadblocks and the nationwide general strike that sparked the unrest, saying it had succeeded in delivering a warning to the government. But it threatened more protest action.
Suleiman Franjieh, a Christian opposition leader, told Hizbollah’s Manar TV the next steps “will be nothing compared to what we saw today” if the government does not respond to the opposition’s demands soon.
The day of widespread violence gave a frightening glimpse of how quickly the long confrontation between Siniora’s government and Hizbollah and its allies could spiral out of control, enflame tensions between Lebanon’s Sunnis, Shiites and Christians and throw the country into deeper turmoil.
The Hizbollah-led opposition is growing increasingly frustrated after two months of constant sit-in protests outside Siniora’s offices in downtown Beirut failed to force him to step down or form a new government giving the opposition more power.
As Siniora’s supporters accused Hizbollah of attempting a coup, the prime minister vowed not to weaken, saying in a nationally televised address: “We will stand together against intimidation and to confront sedition.” But he repeated his willingness to discuss with the opposition a political solution to the impasse and called for a special session of parliament.
The violence called into question whether Siniora will be able to attend a key conference of donor nations in Paris on Thursday aimed at raising billions in aid for rebuilding the widespread devastation wreaked on Lebanon in this summer’s Israel-Hizbollah war.
“Siniora will decide… whether his presence here or in Paris is more important,” Cabinet Minister Ahmed Fatfat told Lebanon’s New TV.
He said the economy and finance ministers were already in Paris and that it could go ahead without Siniora.
He accused Hizbollah of endangering an important opportunity for Lebanon, saying “if Siniora is present in Paris, it could bring about better political and economic support for Lebanon”. The money could boost the Siniora government. But the months of political crisis have already slowed the reconstruction effort, paralysing the government â€” and if the chaos grows worse it could mean any new promises of money will not come through or won’t be properly used.
In Dubai, US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said the international community must support the Siniora government against “those who would destabilise it”. The day’s turmoil brought Beirut’s airport â€” the country’s sole international terminal â€” to a halt as opposition supporters built earthen barricades on roads to the facility.
Their cars blocked, departing passengers wheeled suitcases past protesters and burning tyres on the highway leading up to the airport. Airlines cancelled flights later in the day, and 400 passengers were stranded at the terminal, some just arriving, some trying to leave. Among those stuck for hours were 146 Chinese troops who were joining UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon.
Tuesday’s violence grew out of a nationwide general strike called by Hizbollah and its allies to push its demands for a new government, one that gives them an effective veto power over major decisions. The opposition accuses Siniora’s government of not representing them and of allying the country too close to the United States.
Opposition supporters set up barricades of burning tyres and cars at major intersections in Beirut and other cities, as well as at the main entrances to the cities. In many areas, violence erupted when government backers moved in to confront the protesters.
“We’ve been protesting [peacefully] for 52 days and our calls have went unanswered,” said Tony Younes, who was blocking one road in northern Beirut along with other followers of Michel Aoun, Hizbollah’s top Christian ally.
“Today, we escalated. Tomorrow we will escalate more. And we will continue until the fall of the government,” he said.
Security forces struggled to contain the violence, which leapfrogged from one area to another across the country. In some places, they moved between the battling camps of protesters amid a rain of stones. In others, they broke down barricades, only to see them rebuilt nearby.
In the Christian Batroun region, government supporters and opponents opened fire on each other, killing one pro-Siniora protester. Across the country, 44 people sustained gunshot wounds and around 80 others sustained light injuries in fistfights and stone-throwing attacks.
In the current power struggle, Lebanon’s Sunni largely support Siniora, while the Shiites back Hizbollah and the opposition. Many Christians back Siniora, but pro-Hizbollah Aoun also has a large following.
In Beirut, tensions were high between Sunnis and Shiites, whose presence is largely in the southern suburbs but joined clashes in other parts of the capital.
The spiritual leader of Lebanon’s Sunnis, Grand Mufti Mohammad Rashid Kabbani, underlined his support for Siniora, a Sunni, in a televised address. “The attempt to bring down the government in the street and the siege of Beirut will not pass, no matter what the price is,” he said.
Across the country, many businesses came to halt as workers stayed home, either in support of the strike or because blockades made roads impassable. Some schools, which had earlier said they were open, informed parents they were closed because of the unrest and those that opened quickly sent the pupils home.
“My mother is sick in the hospital and I want to go see her,” cried Jean Kahwaji, a frustrated motorist trying to manoeuvre his car around burning tires east of Beirut.
“Where in the world has this ever happened before?”