- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Lebanese political crisis took a violent turn yesterday as supporters of the pro-Western government and the Hezbollah-led opposition exchanged gunfire, barricaded roads with burning tires and forced the suspension of air traffic.

Local TV footage showed heavily armed soldiers attempting to disperse clashing youths.

Extensive gunfire could be heard in several neighborhoods in the capital, as masked men armed with assault rifles were seen hiding in alleyways and hand grenades were seen lying beneath cars.

Angry crowds burned the party flags of their foes, and reports said opposition supporters stormed and occupied an office of the pro-government Future bloc, led by Saad Hariri, son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

“Sunni Muslims in Lebanon have had enough,” Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Kabbani said in a televised address from his office.

In unusually harsh words, he called the militant Shi’ite Hezbollah “armed gangs of outlaws” and called on the group’s leaders to withdraw from Beirut’s Sunni neighborhoods, according to a dispatch by the Associated Press from Beirut.

Opposition followers blocked main roads with burning tires, old cars and truckloads of dirt, cutting off access to central Beirut as well as the airport and seaport as a general strike — supported by the opposition — was observed to protest low wages and declining living conditions.

The head of the General Confederation of Labor Unions, Ghassan Ghosn, said the syndicates called off a demonstration demanding better pay because the government authorities were unable to provide the protesters with sufficient security.

The government retorted by accusing the Shi’ite Hezbollah organization of turning a peaceful demonstration into a “militia operation” and shifting attention from social and economic demands to political ones.

Lebanese commentators said violent clashes and blocked roads were expected after the Cabinet on Tuesday dismissed the head of airport security, Brig. Gen. Wafiq Shukair, for reportedly permitting the Shi’ite group to install spy cameras at the airport to monitor the movements of anti-Syrian politicians and foreign officials and for declaring Hezbollah’s private telecommunication network illegal.

The standoff between Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian factions has lasted for nearly a year and a half. Lebanon has been without a president since November, when pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud’s term ended.

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