Lebanese protesters begin strike meant to topple government

Nasrallah: "If this (Saniora) team stays in power, we are headed toward economic collapse."

saniora 298.88 (photo credit: )
saniora 298.88
(photo credit: )
Opposition protesters blocked roads with car tires around the Lebanese capital of Beirut and outlying regions of Lebanon on Tuesday to enforce a general strike aimed at toppling Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's government. Opposition activists turned out early in the morning to burn tires on major highways north, south and east of the city as well as a ring road around downtown Beirut, sending black clouds of smoke billowing into the air, witnesses said. Soldiers and firefighters moved in to remove the obstacles. The road to Beirut international airport was blocked, as were the highway linking Beirut with the mountains and the road to Damascus, the Syrian capital, Hizbullah's television station reported. The strike was called by Hizbullah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and other opposition leaders. But Saniora and his pro-government supporters urged all Lebanese to ignore the call. The turnout Tuesday has become a test of strength between the government and Hizbullah-led opposition. Although both leaders sought to avoid violence, tension in the streets between their supporters was already high even before dawn. The strike has deepened divisions among Lebanese. It was backed by Lebanon's main labor union, but banking associations and business leaders have urged employees to report to work. The anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, made up of mostly Sunni Muslims, Druse and Christians, backs Saniora. The opposition is led by the pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian Shiite Muslim Hizbullah, and includes also some Druse and Christians. Scores of opposition supporters took the streets, and in some instances security forces stood by and watched. On the coastal highway north of Beirut at the Christian town of Jal el-Dib, opposition activists mobbed a fire engine and forced it to retreat. On the mountain road at Antelias, the very few motorists maneuvered their way around burning tires to pass through. One got out of his car and kicked away a burning tire to clear a path. In the Beirut commercial district of Mar Elias in the Muslim sector of Beirut, opposition activists used burning tires to block a column of army armored personnel carriers from deploying in the area. Television stations also reported burning tires and blocked roads in eastern, northern and southern towns. The planned strike came two days before Saniora and his economic team seek financial aid for Lebanon at an international donors' conference in Paris. The opposition has also said the grants and loans - which local analysts set at around US$5 billion - would only increase the national debt and further weaken the economy. The summer war between Hizbullah's guerrillas and Israel deepened Lebanon's economic woes. Nasrallah has said the donors' conference opening Thursday aims at shoring up the Saniora government. "Hizbullah calls on all of you to take part in an effective and powerful manner in the opposition's declared strike," Nasrallah told a crowd of thousands in a public square in the southern suburbs of Beirut on Monday evening. "If this (Saniora) team stays in power, we are headed toward economic collapse," added Nasrallah. Hours earlier, the prime minister criticized Hizbullah's tactics, saying the Iranian and Syrian backed group wanted to give the world "a disturbing picture of Lebanon." "We call on all the Lebanese to ignore the scare-mongering campaign," said Saniora. Saniora said people should have faith in the security forces, and their capacity to ensure security and freedom. Nasrallah urged Hizbullah supporters to avoid trouble, saying: "We do not want to fight anyone. We do not want any bloodshed." He reiterated the demand by Hizbullah and its allies for a veto-wielding share of the Cabinet - a request that Saniora has rejected. At his news conference, Saniora extended a hand to the opposition, repeating his offer to enlarge the Cabinet to include more of the Hizbullah alliance's representatives, but falling short of their demand for veto powers. The opposition has been camped out in front of the prime minister's office in downtown Beirut and staged several protests to press its demands since December 1. Troops have been deployed in central Beirut for weeks to keep order. But the action has largely been peaceful.