Violence flares in Lebanese strike

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The Independent Online
In Sidon, Lebanese government troops fired shots over the heads of demonstrators; in Beirut they thumped a local television crew before forcing the trade unions to hold their demonstrations indoors. But tens of thousands of Lebanese obeyed the call to strike against rising prices while soldiers on armoured personnel carriers patrolled the shuttered streets.

What did this mean, the Lebanese asked? Government sources claimed they had intercepted a fax from the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, instructing Palestinians to join the strike, while Elias Abu Rizk, the head of the Lebanese trade unions, denounced the authorities for banning "legitimate" protests at the price rises - which include a pounds 1.18p increase on the usual pounds 3.25 for 20 litres of petrol - while the government "wasted" money on other projects. On the Beirut Corniche, beside the joggers and coffee stall holders, Lebanese troops slept beside their vehicles.

Given the thousands of other troops moving through the streets of Beirut, Sidon and Nabatea, this hardly amounts to an insurrection. The Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, appeared at a demonstration - unbanned, of course - in support of his own government. But the number of shops, banks and businesses closed down by both Muslim and Christian Lebanese was a clear message for the Beirut cabinet: a large number of Lebanese did not support their policies. "The old militias are behind the demonstrations," a Druze shopkeeper who favours Mr Hariri, said ominously. "They want to restart the war."

This may be an exaggeration. But why, many Lebanese wondered, did Mr Hariri use troops to maintain the ban on demonstrations against price increases? Almost five years after the civil war, were the sinister ghosts of that dreadful conflict still around? Mr Hariri had no doubts. He would allow no civil disorder. The price increases still left petrol here cheaper than in Saudi Arabia. Besides, the security situation was "too fragile" to allowprotests which might be "infiltrated by agents provocateurs".

What was on the Prime Minister's mind were the mass street demonstrations which brought down Omar Karami's government in May 1992, a series of semi- riots which Mr Hariri's men still believe were provoked by "communists". And so, after 20 arrests and two men wounded by gunfire in Sidon, Lebanon avoided social unrest and Mr Hariri proved the strongman.

But the cost may prove dear. It is one thing to use troops against external enemies, quite another to deploy them to prevent internal unrest. But in politics, the billionaire Mr Hariri is a gambler; and yesterday he played his cards and kept most of the demonstrators indoors. At least for now.