BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah held funeral processions on Friday for three of its members shot dead during sectarian clashes in Beirut and called for unity among the Lebanese to stop their country sliding to civil war.
The Lebanese army lifted a curfew in Beirut, but schools and universities were closed a day after Sunni-Shi’ite violence killed four people and injured some 200. “We urge all religious figures, Christian and Muslim, and all sensible people in Lebanon to shoulder their responsibility before it’s too late,” senior Hezbollah official Sheikh Mohammed Yazbik told mourners at one of the funerals. “This pure, precious blood was spilled for the sake of unity and it will leave its mark.”
Hundreds took part in the east Lebanon funeral for the Hezbollah student shot dead during clashes between government loyalists and opposition followers of Hezbollah and its Shi’ite allies at a university in Beirut.
Two more funerals were taking place in other areas of Lebanon. The identity and political affiliation of the fourth victim has not been confirmed.
Traffic remained thin in the streets of mainly Sunni districts after the army lifted the curfew at 6 a.m. (0400 GMT), but some feared there would be more clashes in coming days.
It was the first night curfew in Beirut since the 1975-90 civil war. Military sources said the measure was for one night only but the command would determine later in the day whether to re-impose it, depending on security developments. “It’s very bad. It’s going to be like Iraq here,” muttered a vegetable seller in a religiously mixed area of the capital. “God damn whoever awakened it!” read the headline in As-Safir newspaper, referring to the sectarian violence.
Some pedestrians were beaten up on the basis of their religious affiliation, witnesses said. Gunmen took to the rooftops and opened fire, reigniting images of the civil war.
Leaders from both camps called for calm but their television stations continued on Friday to savage the other side and blame it for starting the clashes.
Hezbollah, which has a mighty guerrilla force that withstood a 34-day war with Israel last year, has vowed never to turn its guns against its Lebanese foes. It remains the only group to have officially kept its arms after the civil war.
The U.S. ambassador in Beirut, whose country backs Sunni Prime Minister Fouad Siniora against Hezbollah and its Shi’ite and Christian allies, said the situation had become “quite dangerous” and Syria was involved once again. “Nobody should be surprised when things start to spin out of control, when there has been an intentional two-three month effort to provoke sectarian tension,” Jeffrey Feltman said.
The opposition launched nationwide protests on Tuesday which shut down much of Lebanon and sparked violence in which three people were killed and 176 wounded that day.
The general strike intensified a street campaign that began on Dec. 1 when opposition supporters began camping out near Siniora’s offices in central Beirut to back demands for veto power in government and early parliamentary elections.
Siniora and his main backer, parliamentary majority leader Saad al-Hariri, have refused to give in to the demands.