/ 26 January 2007

Four dead in Beirut cast shadow over aid pledges

Four people were shot dead in clashes between pro- and anti-government activists in Lebanon on Thursday, overshadowing a $7,6-billion aid deal by international donors to shore up the United States-backed government.

The Lebanese army clamped a night curfew on Beirut, seeking to quell Sunni-Shi’ite tensions in a country still recovering from a 1975/90 civil war. Both sides’ leaders urged calm and by mid-evening the streets were quiet with no reports of violence.

The US ambassador to Beirut, whose country backs Prime Minister Fouad Siniora against Shi’ite Hezbollah and its Christian allies, said the situation had become ”quite dangerous” and Syria was involved once again.

Two opposition students and two other people, one a government loyalist, were shot dead and 152 were injured, many by gunfire, at Beirut’s Arab University, security sources said.

Fighting started between students with sticks and stones on the university campus then spilled into nearby streets. It developed into exchanges of gunfire from assault rifles and pistols involving students and residents from both sides.

It was not clear who fired first but television stations run by the opposition blamed the deaths on pro-government gunmen.

Soldiers fired into the air to try to disperse the crowds and were later deployed in large numbers in an effort to control the clashes. Thick smoke rose from the area, where rioters had set cars and tyres ablaze.

Soldiers used military trucks to evacuate scores of civilians trapped on the streets by the violence.

Rival television stations blamed each other’s camps for the fighting. Witnesses reported shots fired at students from rooftops in the mainly Sunni areas and attacks by a Shi’ite mob on a Sunni-run school in another area of the capital.

Government loyalists hurled petrol bombs at an office of a pro-Syrian party in a Sunni neighbourhood of the capital setting the building on fire, witnesses said.

Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah issued a religious edict, or fatwa, urging supporters to leave the streets and stay calm. Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri urged supporters to show self-restraint and calm.

”What everyone should do now is halt the strife … We must all be united or we have to look for our country in the graveyard of history,” Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Shi’ite opposition leader, told local television stations by telephone.

Prime Minister Siniora said from Paris where he was at an aid conference seeking help in repairing damage inflicted by last year’s war between Israel and Syrian-backed Hezbollah: ”I call on everyone to return to the voice of reason.”

Dim prospects

”It’s a powder keg,” analyst Oussama Safa told Reuters. ”It doesn’t seem to be a political decision to let it go there. It’s spontaneous street violence.”

The US ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, said: I think history has shown that outside powers, like Syria, have done it before. And I can’t give you solid evidence, but one can certainly make a pretty strong case that it’s Syria’s hands at work again.”

Speaking on Alhurra Arabic television, he said: ”Nobody should be surprised when things start to spin out of control, when there has been an intentional two-three month effort to provoke sectarian tension. The situation is quite dangerous.”

The opposition launched nationwide protests on Tuesday which shut down much of Lebanon and sparked violence in which three people were killed and 176 wounded.

The opposition wants veto power in government and early parliamentary elections to topple Siniora’s cabinet. The prime minister and his main backer, parliamentary majority leader Hariri, have refused to give in to the demands.

Lebanon won more than $7,6-billion in grants and soft loans at the Paris conference.

”The total sum collected for Lebanon amounts to a little more than $7,6-billion,” French President Jacques Chirac told the conference after around 40 countries and organisations outlined their funding plans.

Lebanon is still struggling to rebuild from its 1975/1990 civil war and is weighed down by $40-billion of debt, equal to 180% of gross domestic product.

War between Israel and Shi’ite Hezbollah guerrillas last year left much of the country’s infrastructure bombed and many Shi’ite villages and districts wrecked. – Reuters