Calm returns to Lebanon after deadly protests

news36.jpgBEIRUT (AFP) — Calm returned to Lebanon as roads were cleared and Beirut airport reopened on Wednesday after the opposition called off a general strike that sparked deadly street fights ahead of a donor conference in Paris.

Traffic moved freely after tractors and cleaners worked all night to clear tyres, sand and rubble from streets blocked in an opposition show of force on Tuesday aimed at bringing down the Western-backed government.

Many shops also reopened, although some waited until noon to ensure the situation had returned to normal. The state-run Lebanese University and many schools across the country stayed shut.

Tuesday’s strike turned violent as opposition militants burned tyres, blocked roads and fought street battles with pro-government supporters that left three people dead and 133 others wounded.

The violent protests paralysed Lebanon for a day and added to concerns over the stability of a country still bearing the scars of the 1975-1990 civil war and last summer’s massive Israeli war against the Shiite Muslim Hizbollah. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference urged all sides “to show wisdom and realise the danger threatening the future of Lebanon”. Government and opposition supporters traded blame for the casualty toll.

Pro-government MP Samir Frangieh said the opposition “has failed … because it had to resort to violence in order to carry out its protest action”. Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah insisted that the opposition had protested peacefully but met an armed response from government supporters. “The July war [with Israel] showed how many weapons we have… but we did not resort to those arms yesterday, even though those who insist they have none did use weapons,” he told supporters in Beirut.

Nasrallah said the opposition remained open to outside mediation, particularly by Iran — a key sponsor of Hizbollah — and Saudi Arabia — a key financier of the government.

In Paris for the donors’ conference, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora called for a negotiated solution of the opposition’s demands for his Cabinet to make way for a government of national unity but rejected calls for early elections.

“It would be impossible to hold elections. That would create new problems in the current circumstances,” he told a news conference.

“Our problems can only be resolved through dialogue, not confrontation.” More than 30 donor countries and many international institutions were due to attend Thursday’s aid conference expected to secure several billion dollars in long-term financing for Lebanon’s ailing economy.

Hosted by French President Jacques Chirac, the conference will include prominent personalities such as new UN chief Ban Ki-moon, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz.

The European Commission said it would pledge some 400 million euros ($520 million) in additional financing. During pre-conference talks with Siniora, Chirac pledged to loan 500 million euros ($650 million).

But Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, who sides with the opposition in rejecting the legitimacy of Siniora’s government, warned foreign donors from Beirut that engaging the opposition was essential if any aid package was to be effective.

“If one large Lebanese grouping remains sidelined and marginalised, then any outside support, whatever its nature or size, will not have positive results,” he said.

Rice said yesterday US will pledge $770 million in new aid to Lebanon as part of a major international effort to rebuild the country and strengthen Siniora.

Rice said the package, to be formally unveiled here Thursday in the donors conference, would bring total US aid to Lebanon to more than one billion dollars since the devastating 34-day war last July-August between Israel and Hizbollah.

“The president will request of Congress $770 million in support for Lebanon,” she told reporters flying with her to Paris.

She said about two thirds of the new aid would go to strengthen Lebanon’s security forces with training and equipment, and to fund reconstruction projects.

The rest would be direct cash aid to Siniora’s government tied to an economic reform plan he unveiled this week. 

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