Beirut- Lebanon's long-simmering political crisis erupted into violent clashes between supporters of Hezbollah-led opposition and those of the government Wednesday, with explosions and gunfire ringing out across the capital after Hezbollah paralyzed
much of the city with roadblocks of burning tires.
The clashes threatened to degenerate into an all-out sectarian conflict, with Hezbollah seizing offices of a major Sunni group and the Sunnis' spiritual leader denouncing the militant faction and appealing to the Islamic world to intervene.
"Sunni Muslims in Lebanon have had enough," Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Kabbani said in a televised address from his office, demanding an "end to these violations."
In unusually harsh words, he described Hezbollah as "armed gangs of outlaws that have carried out the ugliest attacks against the citizens and their safety," and called on Hezbollah leaders to withdraw their supporters from Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut.
Kabbani implicitly criticized Iran, saying "it is regrettable and sad that an Islamic state is funding such infringements that hurt the unity of Lebanese Muslims."
He warned Hezbollah against attacking the Lebanese civilians and hegemony over the Lebanese state and governmental institutions
What started Wednesday as a labor union strike supported by Hezbollah to protest the government's economic policies and demand pay raises quickly escalated into outright conflict at a time of rising political tension between the militant group and the government in their 17-month-long standoff.
Shiite opposition supporters remained on the streets after sunset, and many of the blocked roads remained closed, indicating the protest will likely continue at least until Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah speaks at a planned news conference on Thursday.
Hezbollah supporters seized two local offices of Sunni parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri's group, security officials said. Lebanese troops had to intervene to evacuate the occupants, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Earlier in the day, an Associated Press photographer saw gunmen from Hezbollah and the allied Shiite Amal group controlled by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri shooting toward one of the buildings housing Hariri's Future Movement office. Police also were seen firing toward a building.
The government's contentious decision to replace the Beirut airport security chief earlier in the week for alleged ties to Hezbollah set the militant group and the government on a collision course and helped fuel Wednesday's violence that closed the international airport for six hours and blocked roads leading to it.
The clashes left parked cars ablaze or their windows shattered in one neighborhood, and black soot covered major road intersections that were blocked with mounds of dirt. There were a few injuries reported, largely as a result of supporters on both sides throwing stones at each other.
The disturbances spread to several mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods and began to take on a sectarian tone, a dangerous development in a country still suffering the scars of the 1975-90 civil war.
Tensions reached a new high on Tuesday, when the Cabinet said it would remove Beirut airport's security chief over alleged ties to Hezbollah.
The government accused Hezbollah of deploying spy cameras to monitor the airport and declared that a telecommunications network used by Hezbollah for military purposes was illegal and a danger to state security.
Hezbollah and leaders of the 1.2-million-strong Shiite community rejected the decisions, and the airport security chief continued on the job.
Hezbollah protesters blocked roads with burning tires and other items to enforce Wednesday's strike, leading to clashes with government supporters. Both sides threw stones at each other, and gunfire and explosions erupted in some areas, but only for brief periods.
The cause of the explosions was not immediately known, but witnesses and television reports said they may have been rocket-propelled grenades.
The strike was called by labor unions after they rejected a last-minute pay raise offer by the government as insufficient. But Wednesday's violence prompted the union chief to call off a large demonstration that would have accompanied the strike.
Just as the country is divided politically, the unions were split on whether to support the strike, which was largely confined to Shiite areas that back the opposition. The strike was largely ignored in Sunni and Christian areas of the city, which support the government.
Two news photographers were hurt by stones, according to witnesses and television reports.
Earlier in the same area, a stun grenade thrown into a crowd lightly injured three protesters and two soldiers, the state-run National News Agency said. It was not immediately clear who threw the grenade.
Striking workers paralyzed Beirut international airport for six hours as opposition protesters blocked roads leading to the country's only air facility. Flights resumed later, but the roads to the airport remained closed, trapping scores of arriving passengers in the terminal.
The problems at the airport prompted a senior pro-government lawmaker to propose using an underutilized military facility in northern Lebanon as an international airport for civilian aircraft.
Several Lebanese leaders called on the government to use water hoses to disperse Hezbollah militants since any attempt to occupy the Beirut airport road could end up like the Hezbollah tent city occupation in downtown Beirut.
Picture: Hezbollah supporters burn tires on the main road leading to the airport on May 7, 2008. The Lebanese Grand Mufti declared : 'We had enough of Hezbollah'
Tags: Hezbollah, Iran, Lebanon, source: AP, source: Naharnet, Ya Libnan