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Thursday, January 25, 2007
Lebanon's national strike turns violent
The political crisis in Lebanon has worsened into violence as opposition supporters have enforced a nationwide general strike in a renewed attempt to bring down the Western-backed Government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

At least three people were reported killed and over 130 others wounded as opponents of the Government blocked roads and rival factions fought each other with stones and sticks.

Areas north of Beirut witnessed scuffles between rival Christian groups, while the Sunnis and Shias clashed in the capital.

Roads were blocked with burning tyres and rubbish bins, and the Beirut airport was cut off from the city centre, forcing the cancellation of several flights.

Lebanese troops and riot police, accompanied by fire engines, fanned out at key intersections and trouble-spots along the main roads, but they did not attempt to remove the blockade by force.

Many Lebanese stayed at home for the day, some in observance of the strike call, others because they were afraid to venture out and challenge the opposition roadblocks.

Some Lebanese, however, were determined to overcome the obstacles and reach their workplaces.

The Hezbollah-led opposition, sympathetic to Syria, launched its campaign to topple the pro-Western Government on December 1, 2006, erecting a `tent city' in central Beirut to house thousands of protesters for an indefinite sit-in.

But, the Government, which has nearly equal public support as the opposition has, refused to yield. And, this has created a political deadlock that has so far defied even international mediation.

The opposition is demanding the formation of a national unity government, giving it an increased share of Cabinet seats, before holding fresh parliamentary elections.

The strike came two days before a key fund-raising conference in Paris in which the Lebanese Government hopes to raise up to $7 billion (£3.5 billion) to revive the debt-laden economy and push through a package of economic reforms.

Siniora had urged the Lebanese to ignore the strike and go to work as normal, saying that the opposition's action was intended to jeopardise the success of the donor conference. Though Siniora has planned to fly to Paris on Tuesday, he was forced to delay his trip as it was considered too dangerous to attempt to reach the airport.

The confrontation between the Government and opposition has strained the already tense relations between Lebanon's Sunni and Shia Muslim communities, eclipsing for the first time the more traditional Christian-Muslim divide.

Fears that the strike could descend into sectarian violence were realised in the Beirut neighbourhood of Mazraa when Shia supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal movement fought with Sunni followers of the `Future' movement, which is headed by Saad Hariri, leader of the parliamentary majority and son of Rafik Hariri, the former Prime Minister many Lebanese believe was murdered on Syria's orders.

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