Friday, January 26, 2007

Rival mobs plunge Beirut into anarchy

Rival mobs plunge Beirut into anarchy
Army imposes curfew to end mayhem between pro- and anti-government rioters
By Iman Azzi and Rym Ghazal
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Clashes erupted between government loyalists and opposition supporters in Lebanon on Thursday, escalating swiftly and leaving at least three dead and 158 others wounded by the time a rare curfew was imposed on the city at 8:30 p.m. Scenes across the capital were reminiscent of the country's brutal 1975-1990 Civil War; burning cars, reports of snipers on rooftops and a curfew for the first time since 1996. Thirteen Lebanese Army soldiers, including four officers, were also wounded while trying to defuse the violence that spilled over from a political argument on a university campus in Tariq al-Jdideh.

Premier Fouad Siniora, speaking from the Paris III donor conference, called for restraint. "What are we doing? No one can help a country where its own people can't help themselves," Siniora said. "We have to set an example for those people who came from all over and are watching Lebanon that we are trying to build a country, not a battlefield." He pleaded for the Lebanese to "avoid tension and escalation" and "to calm down and return to their senses." For the second time in a week, supporters of the opposition and the government took their disputes to the streets. "What we are doing doesn't help anyone but the real enemy," Siniora said in an allusion to Israel. "Know that my heart is with Lebanon," he added.

The initial fight Thursday broke out in a cafeteria Beirut Arab University in the Tariq al-Jdideh neighborhood. Two students - one a supporter of the Future Movement and the other a Hizbullah partisan - exchanged insults, with one spitting at the other. From there, it escalated into a mainly Sunni-Shiite clash, escalating from fists to clubs to gunfire and Molotov cocktails. The initial fight trapped many people, including local high-school students, in the midst of the clashes until they were escorted out by the army. Supporters from pro-government Sunni parties and their Shiite counterparts, Amal and Hizbullah, quickly arrived at the scene for a face-off. Both young and old men wielded stones, wrapped chains around their necks and even carried stylized batons - hand-painted and sharpened, with special grips made of tape. "This is war," Ali, a Future Movement backer and resident of Tariq al-Jdideh, told The Daily Star as stones flew nearby. The army responded by blocking off main roads and imposed a curfew over Beirut from 8:30 p.m. until 6 a.m. Friday, the first curfew announced since April 1996, during Israel's infamous Grapes of Wrath attack. The curfew applied to pedestrians and moving vehicles, while the tents in Downtown - where opposition supporters have been sleeping since December - were to be treated as a residential area. Military personnel, medical staff, the diplomatic corps, media and bakeries were excluded from the curfew.

As the clashes progressed and escalated to various areas across Beirut, Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah released an unexpected fatwa urging residents to "respect" the curfew. "For the sake of this country and civil peace, we issue a fatwa," Nasrallah said during a live telephone announcement broadcast on several stations. "I ask you to fully cooperate with the Lebanese Army and to respect army measures already adopted or those due to be adopted in the next few hours." Pleading for calm, Nasrallah said: "Everyone should evacuate the streets, remain calm and leave the stage for the Lebanese Army and security forces." Nasrallah accused "some parties in Lebanon of having designs to drag the country into a civil war." "Anyone who raises arms against their brother is the same as an Israeli," he added. "There is a return of the snipers," Nasrallah warned. "Snipers have been posted throughout Beirut." The army confirmed the presence of snipers, but both groups blamed the other. "Their identities should be determined and they should be prosecuted," Nasrallah said. Speaker Nabih Berri, leader of the Amal Movement, also condemned the clashes and echoed Siniora's and Nasrallah's concerns about Israel. "It's a shame what we are doing to this country," the speaker said. "The only winner is our enemy, Israel." Berri called for rival political leaders to return to dialogue after weeks of deadlock. "There is no solution, we have to return to talks," he said. The speaker urged all Lebanese to "get off the streets before we fall into deadly strife." MP Saad Hariri, leader of the Future Movement, dismissed opposition claims that his party was a "militia." "We have nothing to do with militias and we will never stop protecting our country," Hariri told Future Television. "I urge all Lebanese to remain calm, stay away from strife and allow the Lebanese Army and security forces to perform their duties," he added. "I urge you to cooperate with them for us to establish the rule of law." Prominent pro-government MP Walid Jumblatt blamed Syrian President Bashar Assad for Thursday's violence, saying "the problem is not in Lebanon, the problem is in Syria. Enough is enough; stop it, you crazy man of Syria. Get out of the streets, get out of the tents and stop occupying Lebanon." "There is no such thing as the opposition, there is only Nasrallah," Jumblatt added.

In Basta, army barracks were destroyed. Bank Street, near the opposition's sit-in, was also a scene of violent clashes, where many windows were broken. The army blocked several roads in Beirut, boxing in Hamra for a period, and deployed heavily in areas where tensions have been high, such as Corniche al-Mazraa. In Jiyyeh, unidentified armed men erected roadblocks and stopped motorists to check identification papers, a scenario eerily reminiscent of the Civil War when militiamen used similar tactics to sort out - and murder - motorists on the basis of religion. The army eventually cleared the gunmen and reopened the highway from Beirut to the South. Despite the curfew, Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport remained open. An airport official told The Daily Star that passengers would be allowed to travel to the airport if they showed army soldiers a valid ticket. However, passengers were expected to remain in the airport until the curfew ended. Some flights were cancelled. All schools and universities were ordered shut until further notice, Education Minister Khaled Qabbani said. Late Thursday, a bomb exploded outside the Italian Consulate in Sidon. No injuries were reported but a car was said to have been damaged. Italy is scheduled to take command of the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon in February, and has the largest number of troops in the South. - Additional reporting by Mohammad Zaatari

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