January 27, 2008 / 5:31 PM / 12 years ago

Eight shot dead in Beirut opposition protests

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Eight Lebanese opposition supporters were shot dead in Beirut on Sunday in some of the worst street violence since Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, raising tensions in a country gripped by political conflict.

Lebanese soldiers run for cover during clashes with protesters in the Beirut suburbs January 27, 2008. REUTERS/Houssam Shbaro

A senior opposition source said all the dead were members of Hezbollah or Amal — Shi’ite Muslim groups that have been locked in a power struggle with the anti-Damascus governing coalition for more than a year. At least 29 more people were wounded.

The violence spiraled after an Amal activist was shot dead when the army moved to break up a protest over power cuts.

Security sources said the army, seen as neutral in the political crisis, fired in the air to disperse the protest and that other gunman in civilian clothes were nearby.

Most of the eight dead activists, all men, were killed in the same area, but it was not clear who was responsible. The army said it was investigating who was behind the shooting.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora urged calm and declared Monday a day of mourning. Schools and universities were to be closed.

“In these moments, our country is passing through its most difficult and dangerous times,” he said in a statement. “What we have built during the past years is in danger of crumbling.”

Gunfire was heard into the night in Beirut, and the streets were deserted. Gunmen were seen in Shi’ite and Christian areas near the scene of the shooting in Mar Makhaeil.

In nearby Ain Roummaneh, the site of a massacre that had triggered Lebanon’s civil war, a hand grenade wounded seven people, security sources said. Cars there were set ablaze.

The governing coalition and its Syrian-backed opponents have sought to contain violence since clashes a year ago between their supporters. But tensions are still high between Sunni Muslim followers of governing coalition leader Saad al-Hariri and Shi’ites loyal to the opposition.

PROVOCATEURS?

Animosity also runs deep between rival Christian groups. Opposition and governing coalition leaders last year accused each other of arming and training followers.

“This is the work of agents provocateurs — someone is in there stirring trouble,” political analyst Oussama Safa said, adding he expected rival leaders to defuse the situation.

“I really think they want to get a hold of the situation. But someone, somewhere is doing this.”

Protesters used blazing tires to block several main roads, including the highway to the airport. The protests spread beyond the capital to Shi’ite villages in the south and the Bekaa Valley to the east.

Amal, led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, called on its followers to leave the streets.

“We have no link to this action. We call on people not to react. We call on them to pull out of the streets,” senior Amal official Ali Hassan Khalil told Reuters. Hezbollah, which leads the opposition alliance, used loudspeakers to urge calm.

Arab foreign ministers backed an Arab League initiative to solve Lebanon’s political crisis, which has left Lebanon without a president since November, the Cairo-based organization said.

Slideshow (5 Images)

At an emergency session in Cairo, the foreign ministers agreed that Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa should press his efforts to help rival parties reach an agreement on the make-up of a cabinet, the draft final communique read.

Efforts to end the Lebanese crisis have been complicated by rivalry between Syria and Saudi Arabia, which backs the governing coalition. U.S. rivalry with Iran, which supports Hezbollah, is also partly to blame, analysts say.

Rival leaders have agreed that army chief General Michel Suleiman should be the next president. But his election to the post has been held up by a dispute over the make-up of a new government.

Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Elizabeth Piper

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