Supporters of Lebanon’s Hezbollah-led opposition blocked roads with burning tires and paralyzed the airport in Beirut yesterday to enforce a strike against the Western-backed government.
Security sources said government supporters exchanged assault rifle and grenade fire with Hezbollah sympathisers in the Beirut neighbourhoods of Noueiri, Ras al Nabae and Wata al-Musaitbeh. It was not clear if there were casualties.
One flashpoint was a main thoroughfare in the Muslim sector of Beirut where a stun grenade thrown into a crowd lightly injured three protesters and two soldiers, the state-run National News Agency reported. It was not immediately clear who threw the stun grenade.
But the trouble there and elsewhere as well as road closures led labor unions to cancel the main demonstration planned to coincide with the strike to protest government economic policies and demand pay raises.
In the same area, pro- and anti-government supporters exchanged insults but were kept apart after the army intervened, witnesses said.
The strike was called by labor unions after they rejected a last-minute pay raise offer by the government as insufficient. But it turned into a showdown between the militant Shiite Hezbollah, which leads the opposition, and Western-backed Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.
Lebanon’s 17-month-old political crisis took a turn for the worse this week when the government decided to confront the powerful Hezbollah. The Cabinet on Tuesday said it would remove Beirut airport’s security chief over alleged ties to Hezbollah.
Lebanon’s top prosecutor is investigating allegations by pro-government leader Walid Jumblatt that Hezbollah set up cameras near the airport in Hezbollah’s stronghold of south Beirut to monitor the movement of anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians and foreign dignitaries. Jumblatt suggested the militant group was planning to bomb aircraft to assassinate senior leaders.
The government also declared that a telecommunications network used by Hezbollah for military purposes was illegal and a danger to state security.
Hezbollah and Shiite political and religious leaders rejected the government’s decisions, raising tensions ahead of the planned labor strike.
The political crisis has also exacerbated the country’s economic problems. Rising oil prices and a weakening US dollar, the favored currency here, have driven up the cost of living.
The strike paralyzed Beirut international airport. Airport employees joined for six hours while opposition protesters blocked the roads leading to the country’s only air facility. The strike led to the cancellation or delay of 19 incoming and 13 outgoing flights.
Roads to the Beirut seaport also were blocked.
Elsewhere, thousands of soldiers and police fanned out in the city and on major highways, deploying armored vehicles at intersections.
Security forces largely stayed on the sidelines as protesters blocked roads with burning tires. They intervened to prevent confrontations between pro- and anti-government supporters.
Just as the country is divided politically into opposition and pro-government camps, the unions were split as well on whether to support the strike.
The strike was largely confined to Shiite Muslim areas of Beirut and its southern suburbs.