AFP: At least seven people were killed on Sunday when protests over power cuts exploded into violence in the mainly Shiite southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital Beirut. BEIRUT (AFP) At least seven people were killed on Sunday when protests over power cuts exploded into violence in the mainly Shiite southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital Beirut.
The bloodshed came amid fears of civil unrest in Lebanon which has been gripped by a protracted presidential crisis, and two days after a massive car bombing killed a top intelligence officer and four others.
The violence swept the mainly Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut, a stronghold of the Shiite Muslim militant movement Hezbollah which is spearheading a campaign against the ruling coalition.
Youths spread out across southern Beirut armed with sticks and iron bars, pelting cars with stones and setting some on fire as the army deployed heavily and fired into the air to disperse the crowds.
An official from the Shiite Amal movement, a pillar of the opposition, said one of its members, Ahmad Hamza Hamza, 21, was killed along with four Hezbollah activists, a rescue worker and a civilian.
“Hamza has passed away after being shot in the back,” the Amal official told AFP on condition of anonymity, adding that he was unable to identify the source of the fire.
A security official said more than seven people were wounded.
The army said it had opened an investigation into the bloodshed. The violence escalated after Hamza, who was cooperating with the army, was killed. It was unclear, however, who fired at the victims.
Amal officials said their party “will not be dragged into any provocation” and demanded a probe.
Both Amal and Hezbollah appealed for calm and urged the protesters to go home and allow the security forces to restore order.
“The situation must be contained. We appeal to all the people who are on the streets to go home and leave the matter into the hands of the security forces in order to restore calm to the region,” Amal MP Ali Hassan Khalil said.
The ruling coalition blamed the opposition for the unrest saying it was being manipulated by its supporters Syria and Iran.
“The forces of the Syrian-Iranian axis are fomenting unrest and these events are very dangerous,” it said in a statement. “The opposition, which answers to Syria and Iran, is solely responsible for the blood spilled today.”
The army was out in force and shut down many roads to stop the protests from spreading, and soldiers also took positions on rooftops.
As night fell, demonstrators also temporarily cut the main airport road with burning tyres while gunfire rang out sporadically across the southern suburbs.
A car that had been set on fire exploded, triggering panic in Beirut where only two days ago a massive car bombing killed a top intelligence officer and four other people.
A top security official warned the riots could spread unless politicians reined in their supporters.
“The politicians alone can decide whether to contain their followers or to give them the green light to spread mayhem,” the official told AFP. “But all indications are that the situation will escalate and that these protests will become our daily fare.”
Khalil insisted that Amal was not behind the protests.
“We believe that such actions does not resolve the demands being made by the protesters,” he said.
The unrest broke out after demonstrators set ablaze tyres, blocking a main road linking the Chiyah and Mar Mikhael neighbourhoods in the southern suburbs to protest power shortages.
The army fired warning shots to disperse the demonstrators, a security official said.
Witnesses told AFP that gunmen in the crowd opened fire at the security forces who retaliated.
Demonstrators have faced off with security forces on several occasions in the past few days over power cuts and rising prices.
Sunday’s riots were the worst since January 2007 when seven people were killed in clashes between students loyal to the various feuding camps. The violence prompted the army to impose a brief curfew for the first time since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
Sunday’s unrest came as Arab League foreign ministers were meeting in Cairo to try to press feuding Lebanese politicians to elect a new president to fill a seat that has been vacant since November 24.
Army chief Michel Sleiman — who is tipped to be elected president if the Western-backed ruling majority and the opposition can agree — — warned last week that “any action that could trigger civil conflict is banned.”