Beirut- Protesters from the Hezbollah-led opposition clashed with supporters of Lebanon's U.S.-backed government Wednesday as a strike by the Shiite militant group paralyzed large parts of the capital Beirut.
The violence deepened tensions in a country already mired in a 17-month-old political crisis pitting the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah against the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The troubles have left the country without a president since November.
The strike was called by labor unions after they rejected a last-minute pay raise offer by the government as insufficient. But instead it turned into a showdown between Hezbollah and the government.
The clashes began when government and opposition supporters in a Muslim sector of Beirut exchanged insults and began throwing stones at each other. Witnesses said security forces intervened and gunshots were heard, apparently troops firing in the air to disperse the crowds.
A cameraman for Hezbollah's Al-Manar television station was hit by a stone in the forehead, the state-run National News Agency reported. A soldier also was hit in the mouth by a stone.
Earlier in the same area, a stun grenade thrown into a crowd lightly injured three protesters and two soldiers, the agency said. It was not immediately clear who threw the stun grenade.
Around the city, protesters blocked roads with burning tires, dirt, old cars and garbage cans to protest against government economic policies and demand pay raises.
The protests and labor strike paralyzed Beirut international airport. Airport employees stopped working for six hours while opposition protesters blocked roads to the country's only air facility leading to the cancellation or delay of 19 incoming and 13 outgoing flights.
The unrest and roadblocks forced labor unions to cancel the main public demonstration planned to coincide with the strike.
Lebanon's political crisis took a turn for the worse this week when the government decided to confront the powerful Hezbollah. The Cabinet on Tuesday said it would remove Beirut airport's security chief over alleged ties to Hezbollah.
The government also declared that a telecommunications network used by Hezbollah for military purposes was illegal and a danger to state security.
Hezbollah and Shiite leaders rejected the government's decisions, raising tensions ahead of the planned labor strike.
Hezbollah is listed as a terrorist group by the United States. It has fought Israel for more than two decades, most recently in the 2006 summer war, and enjoys wide support among Lebanon's 1.2 million Shiites who are believed to be the country's largest sect.
The political crisis has exacerbated the country's economic problems. Rising oil prices and a weakening U.S. dollar, the favored currency here, have driven up the cost of living.
Just as the country is divided politically into opposition and pro-government camps, the unions were split as well on whether to support the strike. In Shiite sectors of the city where Hezbollah support is high, the strike was widely observed, with most businesses closed and streets empty.
In areas where government support is strong, some businesses were open but many people stayed off the streets and traffic was lighter than usual amid a heavy army presence.
Many schools throughout the city were closed because there was no busing for fear of unrest on the roads.
Roads to the Beirut seaport also were blocked.
The U.S. Embassy advised Americans to avoid areas where protests were going, to take "reasonable" security precautions and maintain a low profile in public.
Lebanese soldiers stand guard, foreground, as opposition activists burn tires during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, May 7, 2008. Hezbollah-led opposition protesters blocked streets in central Beirut and on the road to the international airport Wednesday to enforce an anti-government labor strike that has turned into a showdown between the militant Shiite group and the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora
Lebanese soldiers stand by burning tires during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, May 7, 2008.
Opposition activists burn a car during a protest called by labor unions in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, May 7, 2008. Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah-led opposition blocked roads with burning tires and paralyzed the airport in the capital Beirut Wednesday to enforce a strike against the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora
A car burns as opposition activists try to block roads during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, May 7, 2008
An opposition protester holds a gasoline bottle as he stands near a burning car during a protest called by labor unions in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, May 7, 2008.
Tags: Hezbollah, labor, Lebanon, source: AP, strike, Ya Libnan