- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

BEIRUT — Violent clashes broke out yesterday between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims in the capital, leaving one man dead and exacerbating tensions that threaten the country’s fragile political balance.

Hezbollah supporters on Friday began an open-ended sit-in in the capital in an effort to bring down the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. But Mr. Siniora, emboldened by Arab and U.S. support, vowed yesterday to stay in office.

As revolutionary and nationalist songs blared from protesters’ tent camp in the heart of Beirut, a Mass was held at Mr. Siniora’s office in memory of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, who was assassinated by gunmen in a Beirut suburb last month.

The service was seen as a show of solidarity with the government, which draws its support largely from Sunni Muslims and Christians who oppose involvement in the country’s affairs by neighboring Syria.

A few yards away, a rival Mass organized by supporters of Michel Aoun, a Christian leader allied with the Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah, was held at the St. George Cathedral.

The clash in Tarik Jdideh occurred as Hezbollah supporters were returning from Beirut’s downtown and passed through the Sunni neighborhood.

Police officials said the two sides threw stones at each other and the clash escalated into gunfire, which killed Ahmed Ali Mahmoud, a 20-year-old Shi’ite. At least 10 persons were slightly injured in similar clashes elsewhere in West Beirut.

Hezbollah, an ally of Syria that is backed by many Shi’ite Muslims and some Christians, contends that the fight is against American — not Syrian — influence, saying the United States dominates Lebanon in the interests of Israel.

Mr. Siniora warned that any attempts by Hezbollah supporters to storm his office, ringed by hundreds of police officers and soldiers, tanks and armored vehicles, would lead to “a major and serious problem.” The prime minister, a Sunni, appeared to be cautioning against open fighting between Sunnis and Shi’ites.

Addressing the flag-waving protesters in central Beirut, pro-Hezbollah speakers vowed to continue the campaign to remove Mr. Siniora from power.

“We will not leave until the government is changed,” former Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh, an ally of Syria, told the crowd.

The anti-Syrian coalition pledged to confront what it called “a coup” by pro-Syrian groups to undermine Lebanon’s independence after last year’s withdrawal of Syrian troops after three decades of domination in Lebanon.

In Jerusalem, Israeli officials warned that the fall of Mr. Siniora’s moderate government could lead to the establishment of an Iranian proxy state on Israel’s northern border and increase the probability of war between the two nations.

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