Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bloodshed in Beirut casts shadow over aid pledges

Bloodshed in Beirut casts shadow over aid pledges
By Nadim Ladki - REUTERS

Student battles killed at least two in Lebanon on Thursday, as international donors promised $7.6 billion some hope will help the U.S.-backed government survive a growing challenge from the Hezbollah-led opposition. At least two opposition students were shot dead and 35 were injured, some by gunfire, at Beirut's Arab University, security sources said. The opposition-run NBN television station put the death toll at four, including two students. It was not immediately clear who opened fired but NBN and Al-Manar television, run by the opposition's Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah movement, blamed the shootings on pro-government gunmen loyal to Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri. 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 tires 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 the 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. Hezbollah issued a statement urging its supporters to pull out of the streets around the university, while Hariri urged supporters to show self-restraint and calm. "What everyone should do now is halt the strife," Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Shi'ite opposition leader, told several television stations by telephone.


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 want veto power in government and early parliamentary elections to topple the cabinet of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Siniora 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 a Paris conference on Thursday to help it cope with a debt mountain and recover from war. Some donors also hope to help the U.S.-backed Beirut government weather the threat from the opposition. Saudi Arabia headed the list of donors with a promise of $1.1 billion of development aid and grants, the United States pledged $770 million and the Arab Monetary Fund and World Bank offered funding of around $700 million apiece. "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 organizations outlined their funding plans at the one-day meeting. "I'm overjoyed by this," he added to loud applause.

Lebanon is still struggling to rebuild from its 1975-1990 civil war and is weighed down by $40 billion of debt, equal to 180 percent 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.
(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Tom Perry in Beirut and Francois Murphy and Arshad Mohammed in Paris)

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