Protests paralyze Lebanon, 3 killed

BEIRUT – Protesters bent on toppling Lebanon’s cabinet blocked roads with blazing tiers on Tuesday, sparking clashes with government loyalists in which police said three people were killed and 133 people hurt.

The violence raised the stakes in a campaign by Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah and its Shi’ite and Christian allies to oust Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s Western-supported government. Siniora, a Sunni Muslim, vowed to stand firm.

The opposition called an end to Tuesday’s anti-government strike but said in a statement it would conduct “more effective” protests in the future to achieve its demands of a unity government and early elections.

A senior opposition source and witnesses said roadblocks had been lifted, including barriers on the airport road.

“The opposition calls on the authoritarian side to draw the lessons of this great event for which we hold it responsible,” the statement said.

In a televised speech earlier, Siniora said: “We will stay together against intimidation. We will stand together against strife.

“Today’s general strike turned into actions and harassment that overstepped all limits and rekindled memories of times of strife, war and hegemony,” he said.

The street trouble prompted him to delay his departure for an international conference on aid for Lebanon to be held in Paris on Thursday.

The United States called on all sides to exercise restraint and settle differences peacefully, saying the protests were designed as a distraction from the aid talks. French President Jacques Chirac said the protests could discourage donors.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who planned to attend the Paris conference, urged all parties to resolve their differences peacefully, his spokeswoman said.

“It is essential that all parties within Lebanon work through the democratic process and return to dialogue as a means of addressing their political differences,” chief U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said.

Lebanese troops tried to keep rival groups apart, but police said a member of the Christian, pro-government Lebanese Forces party was shot dead in the town of Batroun, north of Beirut.

Two people were shot dead in the mainly Sunni Muslim northern port of Tripoli. Police said gunfire wounded about 50 people, many of them in Christian areas.

Police said 133 people were hurt in a day of skirmishes round the country. Stone-throwing crowds fought in Beirut and Christian areas to the north, even though troops caught in the middle fired in the air to try to deter them.

Black smoke billowed over Beirut as demonstrators shut main roads, including those to the port and international airport, to enforce the general strike called by Hezbollah and its allies.

Several airlines canceled flights. About 300 passengers were stranded at the airport because nearby roads were closed.

The army, which has been guarding government offices in central Beirut since the opposition began protesting there on December 1, has few extra troops to deploy. It is already stretched after moving thousands of men to southern Lebanon and the Syrian border following Hezbollah’s war with Israel last year.

One Christian leader said Tuesday’s protests were tantamount to a coup attempt.

Siniora has rejected opposition demands. Instead, he has announced a reform plan to be presented at the Paris conference, where donors are expected to pledge money, possibly in the billions of dollars, for Lebanon’s debt-laden economy.

“(The United States) will make a long-term financial contribution to help Lebanon rebuild itself,” UnderSecretary of State Nicholas Burns said at a Dubai seminar.

Such support would help thwart those trying “to overturn a democratically elected government through … mobs,” he said.

Pro-government figures condemned the protests.

“What is happening is a revolution and a coup attempt,” Christian leader Samir Geagea told Al Jazeera. “This is direct terrorism to paralyze the country.”

The campaign has raised tension between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Lebanon, still recovering from a 1975-90 civil war.