Seven people were shot dead in Beirut on Sunday in some of the worst internal violence since Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, raising tensions in a country gripped by a political crisis.
At least five of the dead were supporters of the pro-Syrian opposition, opposition sources said. The opposition has been locked in a power struggle for more than a year with the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The conflict has fuelled sectarian tensions between Shi'ite Muslims loyal to the opposition and Sunni followers of Saad al-Hariri, who leads the governing coalition.
The violence spiralled after an activist from the opposition Amal movement was shot dead when the army moved to break up a demonstration against power cuts. The army, seen as neutral in the crisis, had fired in the air to disperse the initial protest. It said it was investigating who was behind the shooting, which it said killed two people. Heavy gunfire was heard and gunmen were seen in nearby Shi'ite Muslim and Christian streets. Cars were set ablaze in Beirut and protests spread beyond the capital to Shi'ite villages in the south and the Bekaa Valley to the east. Protesters used blazing tyres to block several main roads, including the highway to the airport in the worst violence in Beirut since clashes a year ago between supporters of the governing coalition and its Syrian-backed rivals.
Security sources said 22 people were also wounded. At least four of the dead were close to the pro-Syrian Hezbollah, which together with Amal has the support of the Shi'ite population. Amal, led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, called on its followers to halt the protests. "We have no link to this action. We call on people not to react. We call on them to pull out of the streets," senior Amal official Ali Hassan Khalil told Reuters. Hezbollah, which leads the opposition alliance, used loudspeakers to urge calm. Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo on Sunday to review Arab League efforts to mediate an end to the political conflict, which has left Lebanon without a president since November. Sunday's protest began in the Mar Makhaeil area of southern Beirut, near the site of a shooting that had triggered Lebanon's civil war. Security sources said one soldier was injured when protesters threw stones at the initial protest. Rival leaders have agreed that army chief General Michel Suleiman should be the next president. But his election to the post has been held up by a dispute over the make-up of a new government.