Opposition vows no retreat after day of clashes

Posted in Broader Middle East | 08-May-08 | Author: Hussein Abdallah| Source: Daily Star

Government side accuses Hizbullah of 'open attack against the state'

BEIRUT: A General Labor Confederation (GLC) strike turned political and violent on Wednesday when supporters of the opposition took to the streets and blocked the main road leading to Beirut's international airport in protest at the government's recent decision to sack the facility's security chief, General Wafiq Shoucair, and counter Hizbullah's private phone network.

A well-informed opposition source told The Daily Star on Thursday that the opposition would not stop its protest action unless the Western-backed government reversed its decisions.

"Our movement will not stop and will change to become civil disobedience until our demands are met," the source added. "After rejecting Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri's call for dialogue, the government made a number of provocative decisions. Our movement is the result of these decisions."

After an Amal Movement meeting that was headed by Berri later on Wednesday, the party held the Lebanese government responsible for the current escalation.

Hizbullah's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, is due to hold a new conference on Thursday to react to the government's recent decisions.

Youth and Sports Minister Ahmad Fatfat told The Daily Star that the Lebanese Army and security forces would not hesitate to open the airport road in a timely manner.

"Hizbullah's actions are an open attack against the state," he said. "What Hizbullah is doing reminds the Lebanese people of what Israel did to the airport in the summer 2006 war," he added, referring to the Jewish state's bombing of runways and fuel tanks.

Opposition supporters blocked the airport road by burning tires and erecting sand berms on the street. They also started what appeared to be a sit-in in the vicinity of the airport with the aim at pressuring the government. There was no damage to the airport.

The Cabinet on Monday decided to relieve Shoucair of his duties at the airport. Shoucair was accused of not taking the necessary measures to prevent Hizbullah from allegedly setting up cameras.

The Cabinet also instructed state security forces to do all that is necessary to counter Hizbullah's private phone network.

In reaction to the cabinet's decisions, Hizbullah officials warned the government against "touching" the phone network, which they described as "part of the resistance's arsenal."

Meanwhile, Sunni Mufti Mohammad Rashid Qabbani lashed out at Hizbullah.

"We thought that Hizbullah was dedicated to fighting Israel, but we were surprised to see Hizbullah change to an armed force that is trying to occupy Beirut," he said. "Hizbullah is kidnapping the airport to blackmail the Lebanese government in a bid to force it to accept the setting up of cameras to monitor the airport and the establishment of a private phone network for Hizbullah."

Qabbani also said that Lebanon's Sunni community was fed up with Hizbullah's actions. He also lashed out at Iran for its financing of what he called "Hizbullah's violations."

Also on Wednesday, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea accused Hizbullah of being a "Mehdi Army" in the streets on Beirut, referring to Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, which has recently come under heavy attack by US and Iraqi forces.

He also accused Hizbullah of wanting to control the airport.

"Hizbullah is telling the Lebanese government: 'If the airport is not under our control, there will be no airport at all," he said.

He also pointed out the fact that Christian areas have not witnessed any form of unrest.

"Christians ignored the opposition's strike," he said.

Geagea also said after meeting Prime Minister Fouad Siniora later on Wednesday that the Lebanese government was capable of unblocking the roads leading to the airport. "They think that we cannot reopen the roads. I assure them that we are capable of doing that," he said.

In an interview with Future Television, Siniora said Hizbullah's actions were "worse than what Israel did during the 1982 invasion" because the resistance is not a foreign force.

In June of that year, the Israeli military killed more than 20,000 people as its forces drove all the way to Beirut from a strip of the South occupied since 1978. It also assisted its Lebanese Christian militia allies in massacring hundreds of civilians at Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

Despite widespread street clashes, including fire from assault rifles and heavy machine guns, no deaths were reported on Wednesday.

Siniora also said that while no decision had been taken to impose a curfew, that matter was under discussion.

Also Wednesday, the ruling March 14 Forces coalition issued a statement condemning the opposition's actions. The statement said that the March 14 Forces would not surrender to the "Hizbullah-led armed coup against the Lebanese state."

The statement praised the majority of the Lebanese people for boycotting the strike, calling on the public to resist the coup and confront "the conspiracy that aims at imposing Hizbullah's conditions on the Lebanese people."

March 14 also called on the Arab and international communities to do everything necessary to help the government to end the "airport siege."

Meanwhile, Future Movement MP Mohammad Qabbani called on the government to open the northern Qolayat Airport for flights within 24 hours.

"I call on the government to announce the Rene Qolayat Airport as an international airport immediately, and inform all international organizations of the new development," he said.

Earlier on Wednesday, GLC Chief Ghassan Ghosn called off the strike, blaming the government for not taking the necessary security measures to guarantee the safety of protesters.

The Interior Ministry issued a statement on Wednesday, denying Ghosn's allegations.

"Ghosn's allegations cannot hide the fact that the planned strike was not meant to be one to protest the government economic policies," the ministry statement said. "Had the strike been serious, it would not have turned violent. Ghosn cannot hide the real aims behind the strike that he called for."