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Lebanon students clash; 3 reported dead

AP PhotoLebanese army soldiers detain a protester during confrontations which erupted between government and opposition supporters in the streets around Beirut Arab University, in Lebanon Thursday.
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BEIRUT, Lebanon – Government and opposition supporters clashed at a Beirut university campus Thursday, battering each other with sticks, stones and even furniture in new violence spilling over from Lebanon’s political crisis. At least three people were reported killed.

Black smoke poured into the sky from cars engulfed in flames as armored vehicles full of troops moved in to try to keep the two sides apart. But the riot spread through the streets around Beirut Arab University as students smashed parked cars in a battle that raged for three hours.

After the rioters dispersed, the military declared a nighttime curfew.

The violence began with an argument between pro-government Sunni Muslims and supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah opposition movement in the university cafeteria, students said.

As the melee grew, Hezbollah supporters called in help, and residents from the surrounding Sunni neighborhood joined in. Dozens of vigilantes wearing blue and red construction hats and carrying makeshift weapons ” chair legs, pipes, garden tools, sticks and chains ” converged on the university and clashed with the police.

The army was called in with armored vehicles, firing tear gas and live rounds in the air to try to disperse the crowd.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah later appealed for calm on live television, asking his followers to clear the streets and allow security forces to operate.

“It is a religious duty. All must … leave the streets and remain calm and restrain themselves and leave the arena for the army and the security forces to shoulder full responsibility to control the situation,” Nasrallah said in an audio message broadcast on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV and other channels.

Al-Manar reported two of the Shiite group’s supporters was killed. Security officials could not immediately confirm the death but reported 17 people wounded. Other TV stations reported that about 25 people were hurt.

The melee ” the third straight day of violence ” underscored how Lebanon’s political power struggle between the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the Hezbollah-led opposition has moved into the volatile streets. Many fear it could spiral out of control and push the country back into civil war.

The opposition has staged two months of demonstrations and sit-ins in a bid to topple Saniora’s government. The prime minister has refused the opposition’s demand for veto-wielding share of the Cabinet.

The university clash came two days after a general strike called by the opposition turned into the worst day of violence since the political crisis began. The strike sparked opposition-government clashes around the country that killed three people and took on a dangerous sectarian tone, with fights between Sunni Muslims and Shiites.

Saniora was in Paris Thursday at a conference of donor nations that promised more than $7 billion in aid to rebuild Lebanon after this summer’s devastating Hezbollah-Israel war.

The trouble at the university ” located in the mainly Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Tarik el-Jadideh ” began with the argument in a cafeteria, students said. They said university security broke up the fight, but the Sunni supporters encircled the campus.

During the brawl, some students claimed they came under sniper fire. Mohammed Abdul-Sater, a 21-year-old Shiite student, said he saw at least three people wounded by gunfire.

“We are afraid about the future of the country,” he said. “We are afraid about civil war.”

As the battle spilled into the streets, people from outside the university joined in. Young men carrying sticks and wearing hard hats arrived and pelted each other with stones. Some flung pieces of furniture. Soldiers fired volleys of automatic rifle fire into the air, and residents of the area fled.

Saad Hariri, leader of the parliamentary majority and the leading Sunni opponent of Hezbollah, also urged his supporters to exercise restraint.

Lebanon fought a 15-year civil war between its Christian and Muslim communities, ending in 1990. The current political crisis has divided the country along different lines ” with Sunnis largely backing Saniora, Shiites behind Hezbollah, and Christians divided between the two camps.


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