Factions clash again in Lebanon

/ Source: The Associated Press

Pro- and anti-government factions clashed for a second day in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Wednesday, a day after violence nationwide claimed three lives and injured more than 170 people.

Tripoli, the country’s second largest city, saw some of the heaviest fighting on Tuesday, when a general strike called by the Hezbollah-led opposition sparked clashes with government supporters in Beirut and other parts of Lebanon.

The violence gave a frightening glance into the turmoil that could result from the long power struggle between pro-Iranian Hezbollah and the U.S.-backed govenrment of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. In many places, including Tripoli, the clashes took on a sectarian tone, a deep concern in this fragile nation of multiple communities.

The fighting broke out Wednesday in Tripoli during the funeral of one of two men killed Tuesday, witnesses said.

As about 2,000 pro-government mourners headed for the cemetery in the Tabbaneh Sunni Muslim neighborhood, a gunbattle broke out between some of those in the crowd carrying automatic rifles and gunmen on an overlooking hill, according to witnesses and security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. The gunmen on the hill were from the rival neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen — a stronghold of the pro-opposition Alawites, a Shiite Muslim offshoot sect.

Shops quickly shuttered and people fled indoors; the shooting died down half an hour later. Two people were shot in the legs, police said.

Late Tuesday, Hezbollah called an end to the general strike that sparked the day’s clashes but warned that more protests could follow. Across the country Wednesday, a tense calm prevailed as cleaners swept smoldering car tires and bulldozers removed debris and other obstacles from major highways, put up by opposition protesters during the strike.

Saniora flew to France to attend an international donors’ conference aimed at raising billions of dollars in aid for rebuilding the devastation caused by last summer’s Israel-Hezbollah war.

Tuesday’s violence was the worst escalation of the long standoff between the government and Hezbollah and its allies. The opposition is demanding the removal of Saniora’s administration and the formation of a new Cabinet that would give Hezbollah and its allies more power.

The opposition has been holding a permanent sit-in outside Saniora’s office to pressure him to step down, but the premier has refused.

The country’s Sunni Muslims largely support Saniora, while Shiites back Hezbollah. Christians are divided, with most behind the government but a significant sector joining the opposition.