Tensions roil in Lebanon

Curfew is imposed in capital after armed clashes erupt at university

January 26, 2007|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims churned in the Lebanese capital yesterday as armed clashes at a university killed at least two people and overflowed into surrounding neighborhoods.

Hours after dark, the army imposed an overnight curfew in an effort to restore order. Community leaders took to the airwaves to soothe enflamed emotions.

Rampaging youths had smashed cars, started fires and attacked the party headquarters of their political rivals for hours after the gunfire and rioting earlier in the day at Beirut Arab University.

The flare of fighting and seizure of streets by club-toting young men illustrated the danger of Lebanon's deepening political crisis: Rhetorical brinksmanship and street demonstrations have unleashed a torrent of rage and a sense of threat that is not easily controlled.

There was no consistent account of what sparked the fight at the private university in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood of south Beirut. Rumors were passed from one angry youth to the next, whipping up rage: Shiites had been spitting on the shoes of the Sunnis; Sunnis had been beating up Shiite women.

As the fighting flared into a riot, students phoned friends to come join the fight. Nearby streets have witnessed sectarian clashes in recent weeks, and as Shiites neared the university, brawls erupted between neighborhood men and the volunteer fighters.

"They came onto our street insulting us, provoking us, smashing cars," said Mohammed Ali, 32, a Sunni shopkeeper. "When you see that, you have to defend yourselves."

Shortly after the riot died down, Ali and the other men in the neighborhood were patrolling the streets with clubs and pipes in their hands.

The army struggled to separate the two sides. The sound of machine-gun fire rattled through the surrounding streets, but it wasn't clear who was shooting. Many witnesses said a sniper had been shooting people.

A Hezbollah official said two people were killed; other reports said as many as four had died. At least 150 people were wounded in the fighting.

Word of the clashes raced around the city. Smoke climbed into the sky at sunset as demonstrators burned tires and cars along the roads. The streets were jammed tight, then stood eerily empty, as people raced home and locked themselves indoors.

After sunset, mobs of young men burned cars and manned impromptu checkpoints on the highway linking the airport to downtown. At one such checkpoint, demonstrators hauled heaps of sand and trash bins into the road to stop traffic and set fire to a parked car.

Earlier this week, Hezbollah and its allies called a general strike and set up a vast network of roadblocks, paralyzing the country in an effort to topple the U.S.-backed government.

The crippling demonstration set off violent clashes between Sunnis, many of whom back the government, and Shiites. Christians also fall on opposite sides of the political divide. As fears of civil war rose, alarmed opposition leaders called off the strike, fearful the bloodshed would spin out of control.

Hezbollah and its allies have been pushing for months for a greater share of power. But the government, led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, has ignored their protests. Rather than a popular outpouring of dissatisfaction, the government has consistently framed the demonstrations as a coup attempt engineered by Syria and Iran, Hezbollah's backers. That view has been echoed by the government's allies in Washington.

The leaders from both sides appeared to be struggling to control their followers yesterday.

Hezbollah chief Sayed Hassan Nasrallah issued a religious edict, or fatwa, ordering his people to stay out of the streets. "It's a religious duty," he said.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally and head of the Shiite Amal party, called for calm. "It's a pity to waste Lebanon like this," Berri said.

Saad Hariri, the patriarch of the Sunni community, also appeared on television to appeal for calm. "Protect beloved Beirut," he said.

But on Beirut's streets, animosity only seemed to deepen and more violence seemed imminent.

Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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