Five protestors killed in strike over fuel prices in Lebanon
Strike cripples capital
By Fadi Chahine -Daily Star Online editor
Thursday, May 27, 2004
BEIRUT: At least five people have been killed and over 60 others injured Thursday after troops from the Lebanese armed forces opened fire at demonstrators in the poor suburb of Hay al-Selloum. The demonstrators were protesting the constant rise of gazoline prices, corruption, fiscal policies and unemployment in the country.
According to Hospital sources, at least five people died of bullet wounds while others were in critical condition and more casualties arrived at nearby hospitals.
Firefighters had used water cannons to disperse about 600 demonstrators in the Hay al-Selloum neighborhood, which prompted protestors to retaliate with stones, a police statement said.
Army troops at the scene then opened fire killing five protestors.
Hay al-Selloum is a stronghold of the Shiite Islamic movement and political party Hizbullh.
A fire brigade official confirmed the police report, saying there were no casualties among firefighters.
The protest strike also paralysed schools, public transport and many businesses across Lebanon on Thursday.
Air traffic came to a standstill at Beirut airport for at least three hours in the strike, called by the General Labour Confederation.
Army officials said that protesters charged military vehicles, damaging several and wounding five soldiers.
However, the officials only confirmed one protester was killed and three injured, one of them seriously.
Local Television stations showed footage of soldiers firing automatic weapons into the air and protesters carrying away wounded civilians. Plumes of black smoke rose in the sky.
Soldiers also beat a protestor lying on the ground and loaded two others aboard a military truck according to witnesses.
Army armored personnel carriers were seen moving into the teeming neighborhood as shots continued to be heard in the area.
The nationwide demonstration was called by Lebanon's General Labour Confederation (GLC) trade union to protest government fiscal policies and fuel prices, which they want cut from about 17 dollars per 20 liters (5.3 gallons) to 10 dollars.
Union leaders urged the demonstrators to conduct a peaceful and violence free protest.
Senior GLC official Bassam Tleiss told Lebanon's Al-Manar, a Hizbullah operated TV stattion that the union was working with Hizbullah and Amal, parties that represent the bulk of Lebanon's Shiite community, to try to restore calm.
Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has urged his justice minister and the general prosecutor to investigate why gas stations have failed to comply with last week's cabinet decision to cut the price for 20 liters by about 1.30 dollars.
Taxi drivers blocked a roadway to the southeast of the capital where many shops were closed, traffic was slow and pedestrians struggled to find taxis, witnesses said.
Outside the cabinet headquarters, dozens of protestors held a sit-in, carrying banners denouncing the high gasoline prices, corruption, fiscal policies and unemployment.
"The government is forcing us to go back to a no-oil era," read a placard showing a donkey.
Under the watchful eye of army and security forces, the protestors chanted slogans against the government for a couple of hours before dispersing peacefully.
In the southern Mediterranean port of Tyre, about 100 cabbies blocked access to the city for about one hour before giving in to orders by army and security forces to reopen the roadway.
Taxis then roamed the rather empty streets of the city, with symbolic loaves of bread on their roofs before gathering in a main central square to denounce what drivers said was a government attempt to "force us into hunger."
The president of the confederation of public transportation drivers, Abdel-Amir Najda, warned Wednesday that more than 40,000 taxi and bus drivers would strike and warned they might cut off roads across the country.
Lebanon's economy remains troubled, with a public debt of 34 billion dollars, or 185 percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product. Debt servicing accounts for 47 percent of state revenues.
The private sector has been badly hit, leading to thousands of job losses since last year. --With Agencies.