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Strike plunges Lebanon into chaos

BBC | January 23, 2007

Thousands of Lebanese demonstrators have paralysed much of the country, barricading roads as part of a strike aimed at toppling the government.
Smoke billowed over Beirut as protesters burned tyres and flights in and out of the city were cancelled as roads to the airport were blocked.

The Hezbollah-led opposition called the strike as part of its drive to dislodge the government and hold new elections.

Pro-Western Lebanese leaders accuse strike leaders of staging a coup.

"What is happening is the furthest thing from democratic means," Christian leader Samir Geagea told al-Jazeera television.

"This is direct terrorism to paralyse the country."

Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, has been campaigning since the beginning of December to replace the Western-backed cabinet with a government in which it would have a veto.

Its opposition movement includes some Druze and Christians, factions who also figure within the mainly Sunni Muslim, anti-Syrian government.

The strike comes at a particularly difficult time for the government. Potential donors are gathering on Thursday in Paris for a major aid conference to help get Lebanon back on its feet after last summer's Hezbollah-Israel war.

Little action

An eerie silence hung over city's commercial areas as many workers stayed at home, although correspondents said it was unclear whether this was in support of the strike or because they were simply unable to get to work.

The government had said it would do what was necessary to keep the roads open, but the BBC's Jim Muir says there has been little concerted action so far to do so.

At least 15 people have been wounded in scuffles between rival factions and demonstrators have vowed to keep up their protests until they achieve their aims.

"Our campaign will escalate day by day," Suleiman Franjieh, an opposition Christian leader, told Hezbollah's al-Manar television.

"As long as they won't listen to us, we will not let them rest."

United against Syria

The strike has raised tensions in a country which still bears the scars of the 1975-1990 civil war.

Hezbollah hopes the action will achieve what it has so far failed to attain through mass protests: the end of the government.

But Prime Minister Fouad Siniora still enjoys strong support from his loose alliance of Sunni Muslims, Christians and Druze, who are united in their desire to rid the country of the influence of its powerful neighbour, Syria.

His government is also backed by some powerful outside players, including the US, France and Saudi Arabia.

The BBC's Middle East analyst Roger Hardy says their fear is that if Hezbollah were to succeed in toppling Mr Siniora's government, Iran's already growing influence in the region would only increase


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