- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2007

BEIRUT — Hezbollah-led protesters burned tires and cars and clashed with government supporters yesterday, paralyzing Beirut and areas across Lebanon in the worst violence yet in the pro-Iranian group’s campaign to topple U.S.-backed Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

At least three persons were killed and dozens injured as the two camps battled each other around street barricades with stone-throwing and in some cases gunfire. Black smoke poured into the sky over Beirut from burning roadblocks.

The fighting quickly took on a dangerous sectarian tone in a country whose divided communities fought a bloody 1975-90 civil war. Gunmen from neighboring districts in the northern city of Tripoli — one largely Sunni Muslim, the other largely Alawites, a Shi’ite Muslim offshoot — fought each other, causing two of the fatalities.

In the evening, the opposition announced that it would call off the roadblocks and the nationwide general strike that sparked the unrest, saying it had delivered a warning to the government. But it threatened more protests.

Suleiman Franjieh, a Christian opposition leader, told Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television that the next steps “will be nothing compared to what we saw today” if the government does not respond to the opposition’s demands.

The Hezbollah-led opposition is growing increasingly frustrated after two months of sit-in protests outside Mr. Siniora’s offices in downtown Beirut failed to force him to step down or form a new government giving the opposition more power.

Mr. Siniora vowed not to yield, saying in a televised address: “We will stand together against intimidation and to confront sedition.”

But he repeated his willingness to discuss a political solution to the impasse and called for a special session of parliament.

The violence called into question whether Mr. Siniora will be able to attend a conference of donor nations in Paris tomorrow aimed at raising billions of dollars in aid for rebuilding Lebanon after the devastation wreaked by the summer’s Israel-Hezbollah war.

Cabinet Minister Ahmed Fatfat said the economy and finance ministers already were in Paris and the conference could proceed without Mr. Siniora.

The day’s turmoil brought the Beirut airport to a halt, with Hezbollah supporters building earthen barricades on roads to the facility.

Their cars blocked, departing passengers wheeled suitcases past protesters and burning tires on the highway leading to the airport. Airlines canceled flights later in the day, and 400 passengers were stranded at the terminal. Among those stuck for hours were 146 Chinese troops who were joining U.N. peacekeepers in south Lebanon.

Protesters set up barricades of burning tires and cars at major intersections in Beirut and other cities. In many areas, violence erupted when government backers moved in to confront the protesters.

Security forces struggled to contain the violence. In some places, officers moved between battling camps of protesters amid a rain of stones. In others, they broke down barricades only to see them rebuilt.

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