Wednesday, January 24, 2007

One day was more than enough

One day was more than enough
Opposition calls off strike but warns of 'far worse' to come if government refuses to give in

By Rym Ghazal
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: The Hizbullah-led opposition's general strike against the government on Tuesday led to a nationwide protest that paralyzed the country and left its capital engulfed in barricades of blazing tires and bloodied by clashes that left at least three dead and over 130 wounded. Late Tuesday, the opposition announced that it would lift its strike.

Prior to the announcement, however, the man whom the crippling protest was aimed at unseating - Prime Minister Fouad Siniora - issued a brief, firm address to the nation in which he stood his ground and announced he would remain in office, even as the country appeared to be drawing to the verge of another civil war. "We are at a dangerous crossroads: Either we are heading to a civil war, or heading to dialogue," Siniora said in a televised address from inside the Grand Serail, where he has been residing since the beginning on December 1 of a sit-in in the heart of the capital aimed at deposing his government.

The peaceful anti-government campaign had been escalating slowly over the past two months, until on Tuesday it suddenly surged and turned violent. As The Daily Star went to press, unverified reports had emerged that at least seven had perished in street clashes. "We will stand together against intimidation. We will stand together against strife," Siniora said, calling on the opposition to "get off the streets" and return to dialogue. Fear gripped the country as residents of the capital watched columns of smoke rising in all directions, fed by the blazing tires, cars and garbage that opposition protesters used to block all main routes into Beirut. It was the second time in less than six months that Lebanon was besieged, with its highways, main roads, ports and airport completely blocked off - the predicament reminiscent of the summer 2006 war with Israel.

Siniora was forced to cancel a flight to Paris, where he was to join the Paris III international donor conference for Lebanon on Thursday. The premier called for an immediate extraordinary session of Parliament to defuse the crisis, pleading for "our brothers in the opposition" to join in.

In its announcement that the strike would end, the opposition said that the day's chaos had been a "warning." "This was a warning to the government," said Hizbullah MP Amin Cherri, reading a joint opposition statement. "The government has to respond to our demands, and if doesn't, then it should expect even greater escalation, far worse than today's," Cherri told The Daily Star. Lebanese troops and police remained on high alert throughout the day, working to keep rival groups apart. Security forces made sporadic efforts to open roads but made little headway because of the crowds of protesters. Violent clashes erupted across the country, with two areas witnessing the return of old "fault lines" from the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War.

The Shiite supporters of Hizbullah and Amal clashed with the Future Movement's Sunni supporters in the predominantly Sunni area of Corniche al-Mazraa. Stone-throwing and fistfights injured dozens of people and wreaked damage on cars and private property. At the same time, supporters of Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun clashed with followers of Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea in several predominantly Christian areas, in fights recalling the leaders' bitter rivalry in the late 1980s. Lebanese officials were quoted as warning that the Aoun-Geagea struggle may turn into "a war of elimination." Many shops, schools and businesses were closed in Beirut, either because of business owners supporting the strike, or because employees could not get to work past fiery barricades. Many commuters were stranded, and an eerie silence hung heavily over most of the capital's commercial districts. "What is happening is a revolution and a coup d'etat," Geagea told local media. "This is direct terrorism to paralyze the country," he said, going on to criticize the national security apparatus for failing to "guarantee safe and open passage for the Lebanese." After Defense Minister Elias Murr instructed the army to "avoid use of force," the troops remained on alert, with shots fired in the air and tear gas released whenever riots erupted. "Our campaign will escalate day by day," former Minister Suleiman Franjieh, an opposition leader, told Al-Manar television earlier on Tuesday. "As long as they won't listen to us, we will not let them rest." Some residents caught in the middle of the clashes between the two opposed Christian parties called on their religious leader, Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, for help and for an end to clashes before the situation deteriorated into a violent intra-Christian war. Sfeir met Tuesday with the US ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, but no statement was made to the media following the meeting. The US State Department released a statement blaming the opposition for the violence and saying it was "deeply concerned" about Lebanese factions "allied with Syria" that "are trying to use violence, threats and intimidation to impose their political will on Lebanon." "Especially given the dangers of sectarian clashes, the United States calls on all parties to use peaceful and constitutional means to debate the political issues before them, and to exercise restraint," said the statement.

Germany, which holds the rotating EU presidency, also called on both sides in Lebanon to halt violence that has killed three people and left scores of others injured, saying Tuesday that the only way to resolve the ongoing dispute there was through dialogue. The German government said the European Union continues to strive for a peaceful future in Lebanon and that it would underline the point during Thursday's donor conference in Paris. - With agencies

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