BEIRUT,(Agencies) – Lebanon’s Hezbollah-led opposition hold a mass funeral in Beirut on Tuesday for an anti-government protester killed in a shooting that has heightened political and sectarian tension.
The pro-Syrian opposition blames the Western-backed government for the death of Shi’ite Muslim Ahmed Mahmoud — shot while returning from a protest to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his cabinet.
Siniora has condemned the killing and ordered an inquiry. “Martyred by the militias of the authorities,” read a banner at the site of an opposition protest in central Beirut, where demonstrators gathered for a fifth consecutive day of protests.
Some anti-government protesters have set up camp in front of government buildings, pitching dozens of tents and shutting off the heart of the capital.
The funeral is due to start around 12 noon (1000 GMT). “We want these ceremonies to be for the sake of Lebanon’s unity and for the sake of the establishment of a Lebanese national unity government,” Shi’ite MP Ali Bezzi told the crowds late on Monday.
The demonstration has been peaceful, but supporters of the opposing sides have clashed away from the protest site.
Interior Ministry security forces said they broke up a demonstration by around 60 opposition backers, who had thrown stones at pedestrians, smashed car windows and attacked a house in Beirut late on Monday. Two people were wounded, a statement said.
The Lebanese army has deployed around Beirut. Soldiers stand atop armoured vehicles at road junctions around the city and coils of barbed wire blocks streets leading to the government headquarters, where Siniora and his ministers are camped out.
The shooting in a Sunni Muslim district loyal to powerful Sunni Muslim leader Saad al-Hariri has heightened tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites, whose leaders stand at either end of the political divide.
Hariri is the son and political heir of former premier Rafik al-Hariri, who was assassinated last year.
Tensions are also high between Christians allied to the rival camps. Many politicians and observers have said the political tussle could spill into another civil war in a country that has suffered two in the last 50 years.
Hezbollah, which is allied to Syria and Shi’ite Iran, has repeatedly accused the Siniora government of failing to support it during the group’s July-August war with Israel.
The opposition led by Hezbollah has demanded veto power in a government which is made up of anti-Syrian politicians from Christian, Sunni and Druze factions. “The worst thing about the current crisis is there is no Arab or international mediator who can intervene … after the potential mediators abandoned their roles and took sides,” wrote commentator Sateh Noureddin in As-Safir newspaper.
The politicians who dominate the government accuse the pro-Syrian opposition of acting to derail an international tribunal into the killing of Hariri to defend their allies in Damascus. Syria denies involvement in the killing.
A preliminary U.N. inquiry has implicated Syrian and Lebanese security officials in the killing, which eventually forced Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon last year.