Sat, Jan 27, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Curfew lifted after quiet returns to Beirut streets

PEACEFUL NIGHT A clampdown imposed after rioting between Sunni and Shiite groups caused the deaths of four people was brought to an end yesterday morning

AFP , BEIRUT

A curfew slapped on Beirut after street battles between government and opposition supporters left four people dead was lifted yesterday but the army warned it could be re-imposed if fighting flared again.

An uneasy calm prevailed in the streets of the capital after the overnight curfew was lifted at 6am, with a few shops and businesses opening their doors but schools and universities remained shut in line with government orders.

The army imposed the curfew to end intense fighting on Thursday between rival Sunni and Shiite Muslims in which around 151 people were also wounded.

"We consider that all is under control for the time being," a military spokesman said yesterday.

"If there are no further developments, there will not be a curfew this evening," he said, adding: "If things change, then we will announce further measures, such as curfews, in a statement."

Detentions

He said the army had detained "about 200 people since Tuesday" when a strike called by the Syrian-backed opposition, led by the Shiite party Hezbollah, turned into deadly clashes.

The clashes, which flared again on Thursday after squabbles between students on the campus of Beirut Arab University turned violent, marked the heaviest street fighting since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war and sparked fears of a plunge back into sectarian strife.

The riots overshadowed a Paris donors' conference which drew pledges of US$7.6 billion in aid for Prime Minister Fuad Siniora's beleaguered government.

The roads where the clashes erupted were covered yesterday with litter and rubble, while burnt-out cars, buses and large garbage containers lined streets close to Beirut international airport.

During the night, the Lebanese army deployed heavily across the deserted capital, staging patrols and erecting checkpoints on main crossings.

"Rehearsal for civil war in the streets of Beirut," warned the headline of the al-Balad newspaper.

"Damn the one who awakened it," cried the bold headline of the leftist As Safir newspaper, in reference to confessional dissension.

Thursday's fighting quickly spread from Beirut Arab University to the mainly Muslim districts of the capital, both Sunni and Shiite.

Youths threw rocks, set fire to tyres to block traffic, torched cars and smashed windshields amid the rattle of gunshots as troops fired into the air to try to disperse the crowds. There were reports of gunfire and pictures showed masked men holding guns and assault-rifles.

"Confessional riots start street battles in Beirut, and the specter of discord required a curfew and prompted political action," said the headline of the leading An Nahar newspaper.

Calls for calm

The riots only ended with calls for calm from leaders of both sides and the curfew -- the first such action in the country since violent labor demonstrations in 1996.

The danger of further violence erupting prompted Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah to promptly respond with a call for army orders to be obeyed.

As the Damascus-backed opposition accused the government camp of starting the riots, MP Walid Jumblatt of the parliamentary majority said the fighting was triggered by Syrian President "Bashar al-Assad who is trying to burn Beirut."

"Curfew in Beirut after it was violated by militias attempting a coup," read the headline of the al-Mustaqbal newspaper, owned by the family of MP Saad Hariri, head of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority.

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