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Seven People Killed as Stone-throwing Protestors Riot in Beirut

 Retrieved from Naharnet on January 28, 2008

 Sporadic bursts of gunfire were heard over Beirut Sunday after violent demonstrators -- protesting power

 cuts -- tossed stones at Lebanese troops and blocked main roads with blazing tires and burning garbage

 bins. Seven people were killed and more than 19 others were wounded.

 Among the victims was an official from Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri's Amal movement. The others

 were four Hizbullah activists, a rescue worker and a civilian.

 The official was identified as Ahmad Hamza, Amal's representative in Hay Mouawwad quarter of Shiyah,

 where protests first broke out at around 4 pm.


 "Hamza has passed away after being shot in the back," an Amal official told AFP, adding that he was

 unable to identify the source of the fire.


 The bloodshed came amid fears of civil unrest in Lebanon which has been gripped by a prolonged

 presidential crisis, and two days after a massive car bombing killed a top intelligence officer and four

 other people.


 Violence swept the southern suburbs of Beirut, a stronghold of Hizbullah which is spearheading

 a campaign against the ruling March 14 coalition.


 Youths wielding sticks and iron bars went on the rampage, pelting cars with stones and setting some on

 fire while the army was out in force in a bid to prevent the riots from spreading to nearby Sunni

 and Christian districts.


 Electricite du Liban denied reports of extended power cuts in the southern suburbs, besides the sudden

 outage caused last week when a cable was damaged by drilling, adding that it was promptly repaired.


 The riots were the worst since January 2007 when seven people were killed in clashes between students

 loyal to rival camps, prompting the army to impose a brief curfew for the first time since the end

 of the 1975-1990 civil war.


 The army command said in a communiqué that the protests coincided with gunfire that left two citizens

 killed, adding that it had opened an investigation.


 The violence escalated after Hamza, who was cooperating with the army, was killed. It was unclear,

 however, who fired at the victims.


 There were reports of snipers firing into the crowd from rooftops.


 Amal officials said their party "will not be dragged into any provocation" and demanded a probe.


 Both Amal and Hizbullah called for self restraint and urged the protesters to go home and allow

 the security forces to restore order.


 "The situation must be contained. We appeal to all the people who are on the streets to go home so that

 security forces can restore calm to the region," Amal MP Ali Hassan Khalil said.


 March 14 blamed the opposition for the unrest saying it was being manipulated by its supporters Syria

 and Iran.


 "The forces of the Syrian-Iranian axis are fomenting unrest and these events are very dangerous," it said

 in a statement. "The opposition, which answers to Syria and Iran, is solely responsible for the blood

 spilled today."


 The army shut down many roads to stop the protests from spreading, and soldiers also took positions on



 But as night fell, riots spread to reach the airport highway, where demonstrators cut the main road with

 burning tires. Soon afterwards protestors cut the Mar Elias road in west Beirut while gunfire rang out

 sporadically across the southern suburbs.


 Riots also reached south Lebanon, where the coastal highway between Sidon and Tyre was closed by

 blazing tires.


 The road to Baalbek in east Lebanon's Bekaa valley was also briefly closed.


 A car that had been set ablaze exploded, triggering panic in Beirut where only two days ago a massive

 car bombing killed a top anti-terror officer and four other people.


 A top security official warned the riots could spread unless politicians reined in their supporters.


 Khalil insisted that Amal was not behind the protests, saying: "We believe that such actions do not

 resolve the demands being made by the protesters."


 The unrest broke out after demonstrators set ablaze tires, blocking a main road linking the Shiyah and

 Mar Mikhael neighborhoods to protest at power shortages.


 The army fired warning shots to disperse the demonstrators, a security official said.


 Witnesses said that gunmen in the crowd opened fire at the security forces who retaliated.


 Premier Fouad Saniora declared Monday a day of national mourning and ordered schools and universities



 Demonstrators have faced off with security forces on several occasions in the past few days over power

 cuts and rising prices.


 Sunday's unrest came as Arab League foreign ministers were meeting in Cairo to try to press feuding

 Lebanese politicians to elect a new president to fill a seat that has been vacant since November 24.


 Army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman -- who is tipped to be elected president if March 14 and the

 opposition can agree -- -- warned last week that "any action that could trigger civil conflict is banned."


 The French embassy urged its citizens to exercise caution following Sunday's riots and to avoid any travel

 in Beirut.