Beirut curfew lifted day after clashes

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BEIRUT: Beirut warily returned to normal Friday after an overnight curfew – the first in a decade – prompted by street fighting between government and opposition supporters that left four dead and 152 hurt.

Shops and offices reopened after the curfew was lifted at 6 am, but schools and universities remained shut on government orders, while traffic on Beirut s usually buzzing streets seemed lighter than usual.

The Lebanese Army imposed the curfew Thursday after its troops moved into south Beirut to halt the worst violence since the 1975-90 civil war – even as the international community was pledging $7.6 billion at a donor conference in Paris.

We consider that all is under control for the time being, a military spokesman told AFP after checkpoints – manned by soldiers in camouflage uniforms toting assault rifles – came down around the city.

If there are no further developments, there will not be a curfew this evening, he added. If things change, then we will announce further measures, such as curfews. He said troops had detained about 200 people since Tuesday when a nation-wide general strike – spearheaded by Hezbollah, the Shia opposition party backed by Iran and Syria – turned violent.

Lebanon, still reeling from last year s Israel-Hezbollah war, has been in deep political crisis since December when the Hezbollah-led opposition launched an on-going campaign to force the ouster of Prime Minister Fouad Seniora s government.

For many, this week s unrest revived fears that Lebanon might slip back into the abyss of sectarian anarchy and bloodshed.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah urged his followers Thursday to show complete cooperation with the military, even as the opposition sit-in outside Seniora s offices continued in the heart of Beirut.

In the interests of the country and civil peace… everyone should evacuate the streets, remain calm and leave the stage for the Lebanese army and security forces, Nasrallah said.

Nasrallah had earlier claimed victory in Tuesday s general strike that brought all Lebanon to a standstill, and which turned violent when pro- and anti-government supporters clashed, leaving three dead.

In Paris, the international community threw Seniora s government a $7.6 billion lifeline to help Lebanon rebuild from last year s war and cope with staggering public debt.

The biggest pledges came from the World Bank and the European Investment Bank, which together contributed more than two billion dollars, followed by Saudi Arabia, the United States and France.

We can t overcome all our problems alone. We need the support of the international community, Seniora told Thursday s gathering at a Paris convention center.

Thursday s riots were ignited by squabbling amongst students at Beirut Arab University, in the predominantly Muslim south of the capital.

By some accounts, it began with one student spitting at another during a heated political argument in the cafeteria.

Fighting between opposition Shiites and pro-government Sunnis spilled into the surrounding streets, which Friday remained littered with rubble and, on a road to Beirut airport, the carcass of a burned-out bus.

While the opposition blamed the pro-government camp for igniting the violence, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a member of the parliamentary majority, fingered Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad who is trying to burn Beirut. The Al-Mustaqbal newspaper, owned by the family of Saad Hariri, leader of the anti-Syrian majority in parliament, accused Hezbollah and its affiliates of seeking to waste the chance of taking advantage of the international and Arab backing witnessed at the Paris donors conference.

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