Labour strike turns violent in Lebanon

In the worst internal crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, supporters of pro-Iranian Hezbollah exchanged fire with gunmen loyal to the pro-Western government during a general strike over low wages that has paralyzed Beirut.


BEIRUT, May 7 (Reuters) - Supporters of Lebanon's
U.S.-backed government fought gun battles in Beirut on Wednesday
with gunmen loyal to the Hezbollah-led opposition, escalating
the country's worst internal crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.

Supporters of Iranian-backed Hezbollah blocked main roads in
the Lebanese capital with blazing tyres, old cars and heaps of
earth, paralysing the city and cutting routes to its sea and

The clashes took place a day after the government accused
Hezbollah of violating the country's sovereignty by operating
its own telecommunications network and installing spy cameras at
Beirut airport.

Air traffic was suspended for six hours because of a strike
by staff taking part in labour union action to demand more pay.

The strike was backed by the Hezbollah-led opposition, whose
17-month-long struggle with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's
anti-Syrian cabinet has already led to bouts of violence.

Security sources said pro-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.
Opposition gunmen took over two offices of the Future
political group led by Saad al-Hariri, leader of the governing
coalition and Lebanon's most influential Sunni politician.

Youths loyal to the rival sides pelted each other with
stones in Mazraa -- one of the Beirut districts where sectarian
tensions have been high between Sunnis and Shi'ites.

The army, mostly seen as neutral during the crisis, deployed
in force but did not attempt to remove road barricades.

Government minister Marwan Hamadeh said Hezbollah, a
political group with a powerful guerrilla army and Syrian and
Iranian backing, was "trying to use military means to block the
airport". "Lebanon has said it will not become an Iranian
satellite," he told Reuters.

A security source said the army had detained two men armed
with M-16 assault rifles in Beirut.

Tension between the government and Hezbollah escalated
sharply on Tuesday when the cabinet said the group's
communication network was "an attack on the sovereignty of the
state". Hezbollah said it was part of its security apparatus and
played a major role in its war with Israel in 2006.

The group was also infuriated by the cabinet's decision to
remove the head of airport security from his post.


Provoked by the government's moves, Hezbollah was "flexing
its muscles" in the streets, said Oussama Safa, director of the
Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. "The heat has been turned
up," he said, adding that there was scope for violence.

"But it's probably not going to unfold into war. A
confrontation is not winnable," he said.

"Things could get very ugly, but I don't think they will
spread out of hand," added Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie
Middle East Center in Beirut. "Everyone is armed and angry."

Hezbollah was the only Lebanese faction allowed to keep its
weapons after the civil war to fight Israeli forces occupying
the south. Israel withdrew in 2000 and the fate of Hezbollah's
weapons is at the heart of the political crisis.

A U.N. Security Council resolution that ended the 2006 war
between Hezbollah and Israel bans the group from rearming and
rebuilding its military infrastructure in south Lebanon.

Governing coalition leaders allege Hezbollah is spying on
the airport to monitor their movements. Eight members of the
anti-Syrian coalition have been assassinated since 2005.

Hezbollah has deemed Siniora's cabinet illegitimate since
its Shi'ite ministers resigned in 2006. The governing coalition
has refused to yield to the opposition's demand for effective
veto power in cabinet. The crisis has paralysed much of
government and left Lebanon without a president for five months.


Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning