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Robert Fisk: Lebanon descends into chaos as rival leaders order general strike

Thursday, 8 May 2008

 Retrieved from The Independent on May 21, 2008

 Burning tyres on the airport road, flights suspended, demands from the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt that

 Hizbollah moves secret cameras from runway 1-7 and end the militia's equally secret underground

 communications equipment. Across Corniche Mazraa, crowds of shrieking Sunni and Shia Muslims hurl

 abuse and stones at each other. A soldier comes up to my car at the crossroads. "Turn round,"

 he shouts. "They're shooting."

 Lebanon seems to feed on crisis, need crisis, breathe crisis, like a wounded man needs blood. The man

 who should be the president is head of the army and the man who believes he leads the resistance –

 Sayed Hassan Nasrallah of the Hizbollah – accuses Mr Jumblatt of doing Israel's work while Mr Jumblatt

 claims the head of Beirut airport security, Colonel Wafic Chucair, works for the Hizbollah and should be


 Yesterday, in case you hadn't guessed, was a "general strike" by opponents of the Lebanese government

 with all the usual chaos. Mr Nasrallah is to hold a press conference today and then we'll all find out if this

 latest crisis is the greatest crisis since the last great crisis. Yes, a good cup of cynicism is necessary to

 wash down the rhetoric and threats of the past few days. At its most serious is the incendiary language in

 which Lebanon's politicians now address each other, the kind of menacing words that could easily touch

 an assassin's heart.

 Indeed, the start of this latest drama might be traced to the murder of two Phalangist officials in the

 Bekaa town of Zahle a few weeks ago. The murderer has been named, is linked to the pro-Syrian

 opposition and is still at large.

 You could hear gunfire crackling across Beirut all morning. To top it all, soaring price increases – even of

 basic food – is creating a little revolution in the hearts of many Lebanese. Yesterday's strike was

 supposed to be organised by the General Labour Confederation, which is objecting to the government's

 new minimum wage offer of £171 a month.

 The darker side of all this, of course, involves Beirut airport. Mr Jumblatt's claim that Hizbollah has

 installed cameras beside one of the runways appears to be correct. Lebanese army officers have

 apparently noticed the cameras which can monitor executive jets taking off and landing. However, the

 apparatus may well have been installed because the Hizbollah believes that runway 1-7 – which starts a

 few metres above the Mediterranean – could be used for a small seaborne landing by Israeli troops.

 There is a persistent rumour in Beirut that the Israelis were about to stage such an operation against the

 Hizbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut on 28 April but that it was cancelled for equally

 mysterious reasons. Was this the origin of the cameras and of Hizbollah's unpleasant suggestion that Mr

 Jumblatt is doing Israel's work?

 As usual, it was the sectarian content of the street violence which alarmed the army – a good many

 stones were chucked from high-rise buildings near the Cola bridge in west Beirut, the exact location of

 Sunni-Shia fighting in January last year. Even in the very centre of Beirut, piles of tyres were set alight,

 giving the city a sombre curtain of black smoke that drifted out to sea. So the capital of a country without

 a president – and for most of the time without a sitting parliament – is set to lose yet more international


 What is it about Lebanon that creates these crises? Maybe at heart, it is the same old problem: to be a

 modern state, Lebanon must abandon confessionalism – the system which provides a Maronite for the

 presidency, a Sunni for the prime minister's seat, a Shia for the speaker of parliament, and so on. But if

 Lebanon abandoned confessionalism, it would no longer be Lebanon, because sectarianism is its identity;

 a fate which its children do not deserve but whose country was created by French masters on the ruins of

 the Ottoman empire. Ironically, the Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora now rules – or tries to rule –

 his nation from a building which was once the Beirut cavalry stables of the Ottoman army.

Hezbollah to end Beirut seizure

Retrieved from BBC news on May 21, 2008

 Hezbollah has agreed to withdraw its gunmen from Beirut after the Lebanese army settled

 tensions between the Shia group and armed government supporters.

 The army revoked two key government measures that had led to four days of street fighting between the

 two sides, leaving at least 37 people dead.

 Hezbollah had seized large parts of the city, but said it was now handing control back to the army.

 But it has vowed to continue civil disobedience until its demands are met.

 A Hezbollah statement said: "The Lebanese opposition will end all armed presence in Beirut so that the

 capital will be in the hands of the army."

 Funeral shootings

 The fighting was sparked by a government move to shut down Hezbollah's telecoms network and the

 removal of the chief of security at Beirut airport for alleged Hezbollah sympathies.

 Those decisions were referred to the army which shelved them, and called on all parties to return to the

 status quo before the fighting.

 The BBC's Jim Muir, in Beirut, says the army's proposals offer a face-saving compromise that allows the

 government to back down.

 He says the streets are expected to be calmer and the international airport is likely to reopen.

 Earlier, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora called on the army to restore law and order, saying the country

 would not fall to Hezbollah after four days of street battles which saw the Shia movement drive

 supporters of the government out of western Beirut.

 In his first response to Hezbollah's de facto takeover of the west of the capital, Mr Siniora said his

 government would never declare war against the Shia group.

 Also on Saturday, at least two people were killed after gunfire broke out during a funeral in a Sunni area

 of Beirut when unidentified gunmen targeted the funeral procession of a Sunni civilian killed during

 clashes on Friday.

 The spiral of unrest has sparked memories of Lebanon's bitter, 15-year civil war.

 Leaders of Lebanon's rival political factions were due to meet on Saturday and the Arab League will hold

 talks about the crisis on Sunday.

 TV station closed

 Hezbollah militants had earlier withdrawn from the streets of Beirut having crushed resistance by Sunni

 gunmen loyal to Mr Siniora's government.

 In the areas of Beirut worst affected by battles between Hezbollah and pro-government loyalists,

 barricades that had been set up were abandoned early on Saturday, said the BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut.

 But the TV station run by Sunni leader Saad Hariri is still off the air after gunmen forced its closure on

 Friday, he added.

 In northern Lebanon, at least 10 gunmen were killed when pro-government activists stormed the office

 of a Hezbollah-allied party in northern Lebanon, reports said.

 Gunmen loyal to Mr Hariri set ablaze the office of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in the village of

 Halba, after the gun battle.

 Lebanon was plunged into civil war from 1975-90, drawing in Syria and Israel, the two regional powers.

 The latest violence amounts to a humiliating blow to the government, which appears to have badly

 overplayed its hand in moving to close Hezbollah's telecoms network on Tuesday, our correspondent