Explosions and gunfire rang out across the Lebanese capital on Wednesday as Hezbollah backers trying to enforce a strike against the US-backed government clashed with government supporters and blocked roads.
The cause of the explosions was not immediately known, but witnesses and television reports said they may have been rocket-propelled grenades. There was no word on casualties.
The strike paralysed large parts of Beirut. Hezbollah protesters blocked roads with burning tires (pictured above), dirt, old cars and garbage cans to enforce a labor strike against government economic policies and to demand pay raises.
The violence deepened tensions in a country already mired in a 17-month-old political crisis pitting the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah against the government of Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Sanioara. The troubles have left Lebanon without a president since November.
The strike was called by labor unions after they rejected a last-minute pay raise offer by the government as insufficient. But it turned into a showdown between Hezbollah and the government.
The clashes began when government and opposition supporters in the Muslim sector of Beirut exchanged insults then began stoning each other. Witnesses said security forces intervened and gunshots were heard, apparently troops firing in the air to disperse the crowds.
A cameraman for Hezbollah’s al-Manar television was hit by a stone in the forehead, the state-run National News Agency reported. Bystanders wrapped a shirt on his head to stop the bleeding before he left on his motorcycle. A soldier also was hit in the mouth by a stone.
Earlier in the same area, a stun grenade thrown into a crowd lightly injured three protesters and two soldiers, the National News Agency said. It was not immediately clear who threw the stun grenade.
The strike paralysed Beirut international airport. Airport employees joined for six hours while opposition protesters blocked the roads leading to the country’s only air facility. The action led to the cancellation or delay of 19 incoming and 13 outgoing flights.
The unrest and roadblocks led labor unions to cancel the main public demonstration planned to coincide with the strike.
Lebanon’s political crisis took a turn for the worse this week when the government decided to confront the powerful Hezbollah. The Cabinet on Tuesday said it would remove Beirut airport’s security chief over alleged ties to Hezbollah.
Lebanon’s top prosecutor is investigating allegations by pro-government leader Walid Jumblatt that Hezbollah set up cameras near the airport in Hezbollah’s stronghold of south Beirut to monitor the movement of anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians and foreign dignitaries. Jumblatt suggested the militant group was planning to bomb aircraft to assassinate senior leaders.
The government also declared that a telecommunications network used by Hezbollah for military purposes was illegal and a danger to state security.
Hezbollah is listed as a terrorist group by the United States. It has fought Israel for more than two decades, lastly in the 2006 summer war, and enjoys wide support among Lebanon’s 1.2 million Shiites who are believed to be the country’s largest sect.
The political crisis has exacerbated the country’s economic problems. Rising oil prices and a weakening US dollar, the favored currency here, have driven up the cost of living.
Just as the country is divided politically, the unions were split as well on whether to support the strike.
The disturbances took on a sectarian tone. The clashes took place in mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods, with Sunnis backing the government and Shiites supporting the opposition.
The strike was largely confined to Shiite Muslim areas of Beirut and its southern suburbs where support for Hezbollah is strong. It was largely ignored in Sunni Muslim and Christian areas of the city which support the government.
In areas where government support is strong, some businesses were open but many people stayed off the streets and traffic was lighter than usual amid a heavy army presence.
Many schools throughout the city were closed because there was no busing for fear of unrest on the roads.
Thousands of soldiers and police fanned out in the city and on major highways, deploying armored vehicles at intersections.
Protesters also blocked highways in opposition strongholds in southern, northern and central areas of the country to prevent motorists from getting to Beirut.
The US Embassy advised Americans to avoid areas where protests were going, to take “reasonable” security precautions and maintain a low profile in public.