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Deadly clashes break out in Lebanon
Updated: 2004-05-28 14:52

Demonstrators set fire to the Labor Ministry on Thursday after Lebanese soldiers shot and killed five people and wounded 12 others during protests against the government's economic policies, security and hospital officials said.

Lebanese soldiers arrest a demonstrator near Beirut airport, after protestors clashed with Lebanese army in Hay al-Soulom, a densely populated, low income district south of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday May 27, 2004. [AP]

A civil defense firefighter also died in the hospital after being hit by gunfire in what was Lebanon's worst violence involving civilians in a decade. The firefighter was trying to douse burning tires set ablaze by demonstrators, officials said. The Lebanese army said 20 soldiers were wounded in the clashes with stone-throwing protesters.

The violence followed a strike call by the General Confederation of Labor and Trade Unions protesting the government's economic policies and demanding a reduction in gasoline prices.

Demonstrators blocked some roads, including the Beirut International Airport highway, with burning tires. Schools, universities and many businesses closed, and traffic was thin on the normally bustling streets of the Lebanese capital.

Protesters also staged a peaceful sit-in at the National Museum's building, near where the Cabinet meets.

The violence erupted when soldiers fired warning shots to disperse protesters in Hay al-Soulom, a poor south Beirut suburb, security officials said. Some bullets hit the demonstrators, killing at least three and wounding eight, the officials said on condition of anonymity.

Lebanese soldiers clash with protesters in the Hay al-Sellom neighborhood of Beirut. [AFP]

Two others were killed in the violence, according to hospital officials.

An army communique said soldiers were forced to open fire after protesters attempted to seize military vehicles. It reported one demonstrator was killed and three were wounded.

The conflicting casualty toll could not be reconciled.

Witnesses said the trouble began when soldiers arrested three demonstrators for setting tires on fire. Demonstrators threw stones and surrounded military vehicles. Soldiers, who first fired into the air and then into the crowd, chased protesters and were seen beating several young men as they arrested them.

The protest, mostly by van and taxi drivers angry at high fuel prices, started with only about 40 people, but grew to around 2,000 as word of the violence spread.

After the killings, protesters stormed the Labor Ministry in the Chiah district of south Beirut and set it on fire. Witnesses said the seven-story building's facade was blackened and the damage was severe.

Most of the violence took place in the Shiite Muslim strongholds of the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrilla group. Hezbollah supported the strike but did not actively take part in protests.

President Emile Lahoud demanded a judicial investigation into "the rioting and resulting human and material losses."

The clashes came amid increasing anger over what is seen as the government's mismanagement of economic policies since the end of the 1975-90 civil war. The economy is shackled with $32 billion debt, or more than 180 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

The last time civilians were killed in clashes with security forces in Lebanon was in 1993, when the army fired on a Hezbollah-organized demonstration in Beirut to protest the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo peace agreement, killing more than a dozen people.

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