Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Hezbollah on strike in Beirut, Lebanon
Nada Bakri and Hassan Fatah, NY Times

[Editor: I invite your prayers for Lebanon, and that the situation may be resolved peacefully. Preferably without Hezbollah acquiring power.]

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 23 — Thousands of Hezbollah supporters blocked streets and highways leading into Beirut today, bringing the Lebanese capital to a virtual standstill and raising already heightened fears that the nearly two-month long opposition protest could burst into open sectarian conflict.

Fadi Ghalioum/Reuters
Smoke from burning tires rising over the Al-Amin Mosque in Beirut during the strike.
At least a dozen people were wounded in clashes between Hezbollah supporters and the predominantly Sunni supporters of the government, as well as between Christian factions on either side of the divide, in the most dramatic escalation of the protests since demonstrations began on Dec. 1.

Protestors burned tires and set up roadblocks along major thoroughfares leading into Beirut while stores and businesses in many parts of the country remained closed in observance of a general strike. In some areas, groups of young men wielding sticks squared off and threw stones at each other, forcing the Lebanese army to intervene.

The Lebanese army used tear gas to disperse one of the clashes and fired in the air to disperse another scuffle, but otherwise sought to keep out of the confrontations. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who remained holed up in Lebanon’s Grand Serail, the seat of government, had pledged Monday night that the army would keep Beirut’s main arteries open.

Traffic in much of the city came to a halt, and many neighborhoods were blanketed in thick black smoke from the burning tires. The access road to Rafiq Hariri International Airport, the country’s only civilian airport, was blocked along with access to the port of Beirut.

The protest marks a significant escalation of the Hezbollah-led demonstrations that broke out in December. The Iranian-backed militia, together with Christian opposition parties, took to the streets last month calling for Mr. Siniora’s resignation and for early parliamentary elections to form a so-called unity government in which Hezbollah and its allies would have much greater say. Until now, the protests have largely been noisy but peaceful.

On Friday, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, called for the nationwide strike and announced plans to escalate the protests. Perhaps reflecting the growing sectarian nature of the crisis, stores and businesses in predominantly-Shiite and some Christian areas remained shuttered today, while stores in Sunni neighborhoods and mixed neighborhoods stayed open in defiance.

In some cases, store owners said, Hezbollah men forced them to close their shops and even locked some inside their shops.


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