Beirut - Thousands of Shi'ite Muslim and Christian protesters blocked roads in Lebanon with blazing tires on Tuesday in a campaign to oust the government, and at least a dozen people were wounded in gunfire between rival factions.
At least 48 people were hurt in scuffles, especially in Beirut and Christian areas, security sources said.
Black smoke billowed over Beirut as demonstrators shut main roads, including those to the port and international airport. Black-masked Hezbollah organizers prowled the streets on motorcycles, walkie-talkies clamped to their mouths.
Lebanese soldiers fired into the air to keep stone-throwing crowds apart in Beirut and on a highway to the north. Daily life was paralyzed in the capital and many other areas of Lebanon.
"This government only understands force and today is only a small lesson," protester Jamil Wahb told Reuters in the Shi'ite southern suburbs. "We will stay here until they give in."
Six pro-government loyalists were wounded, one of them critically, by shooting during an opposition protest in the northern Christian village of Halba, security sources said.
In other violence, a gunman fired on protesters in the ancient Christian town of Byblos, wounding three people before soldiers arrested him. Two protesters were wounded in a shooting in Batroun. An opposition supporter was hit in the head by a bullet near the mountain village of Sofar.
The strike dramatically escalates a campaign by Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, and its allies to replace the government and hold early parliamentary elections.
The army, which has been guarding government offices in central Beirut since the opposition began protesting there on December 1, has few extra troops to deploy. It is already stretched after moving thousands of men to south Lebanon and the Syrian border following Hezbollah's war with
Israel last year.
One Christian leader said Tuesday's protests were tantamount to a coup attempt against the Western-backed government.
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has shrugged off the opposition demands and announced an economic reform plan before Thursday's conference in Paris, where foreign donors are expected to pledge billions of dollars for Lebanon's debt-laden economy.
Officials said Siniora, who had been scheduled to leave for Paris on Tuesday, was following the unrest from his office in central Beirut. They did not say if he would fly out or how.
A senior U.S. official said the Paris conference would offer economic and political support for the Lebanese government.
"We (the United States) will make a long-term financial contribution to help Lebanon rebuild itself," said Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns at a seminar in Dubai.
Such support would help thwart those trying "to overturn a democratically elected government through ... mobs."
Demonstrators blocked roads to Beirut airport with burning tires and earth barricades. Several Arab and international airlines suspended flights, though the national flag carrier Middle East Airlines made no announcement on its plans.
The airport remained operational, but few workers or passengers showed up, airport sources said.
Most main roads in Beirut were shut, as were highways to the north and south, and to the Syrian capital Damascus.
Many shops, schools and businesses were closed in Beirut but it was hard to tell whether this was in support of the strike or because people could not get to work past blazing barricades.
Pro-government figures condemned the protests.
"What is happening is a revolution and a coup attempt," Christian leader Samir Geagea told al-Jazeera television. "This is direct terrorism to paralyze the country."
Opposition sources say protests will last for several days.
"Our campaign will escalate day by day," Suleiman Franjieh, an opposition Christian leader, told al-Manar television. "As long as they won't listen to us, we will not let them rest."
Hezbollah followers chanted slogans as they lit tires in downtown Beirut, close to the prime minister's office.
"Siniora out, down with the government."
The opposition campaign has raised tension between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Lebanon, still recovering from a 1975-90 civil war.
The government is backed by anti-Syrian Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri. Its opponents include Shi'ite groups Hezbollah and Amal. Christians are split between the two camps.
Here are some picks
In the first 4 Hezbollah supporters are burning tires
and the bottom 3 , the Lebanese army is trying to extinguish the fire
Source: Reuters, Ya Libnan
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