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Lebanon Declares a Day of Mourning for Victims of Rioting


Lebanon is observing a day of mourning, after riots in a Hezbollah stronghold of Beirut left more than half a dozen people dead and dozens wounded, putting the country's embattled pro-Western government on the defensive, as Edward Yeranian reports from Beirut.

Lebanon's embattled pro-Western government declared a day of national mourning to honor the victims of Sunday's rioting in Beirut's mostly Shi'ite southern suburbs. Schools and universities were also asked to close, in part to avoid further violence.

A heavy rain pelted the capital, Beirut, as mourners chanted during ceremonies to bury the victims of the violence. The bad weather appears to be preventing demonstrators from returning to the streets as the government meets to decide how to tackle the crisis.

Lebanon's major TV networks showed footage of burning tires, gunfire, and young men wielding crowbars Sunday in scenes reminiscent of the country's bitter and bloody 15-year civil war.

Soldiers and riot police battled the mostly Shi'ite protesters, who began burning tires to disrupt traffic and pelted soldiers with rocks.

The pro-Syrian Hezbollah group claims the Lebanese Army fired on demonstrators, and is demanding an investigation. The army says that it arrested a number of snipers who were firing on demonstrators.

Hezbollah insisted that its partisans were merely protesting electricity cuts. But parties close to Lebanon's pro-Western government accuse Hezbollah, and other pro-Syrian parties of "deliberately trying to create violence and spread chaos."

The rioting occurred as Arab League foreign ministers met in Cairo, urging Lebanese leaders to stop postponing presidential elections and "elect Army Commander Michel Suleiman president on February 11."

Lebanon has been without a president since November 24, and 13 consecutive parliament sessions to elect a new president have been canceled, because pro-Syrian parties have refused to show up for a quorum.

Lebanon National Liberal Party leader Dory Chamoun says the riots are part of a smokescreen by Syria and its allies to stop a U.N. tribunal investigation into the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq al Hariri in 2005. Many Lebanese politicians have accused Damascus of complicity in the explosion that killed him, something Syria has repeatedly denied.

"We have to remember one thing," Chamoun noted. "The international tribunal is like an ax hanging over the heads of the Syrian regime, and they will try to do everything they can to remove that ax."

Meanwhile, Druze Leader Walid Jumblatt, who belongs to the ruling March 14 government coalition, urged Arab leaders to "stand up to (Syria's) Assad regime," which is trying to "retake control of Lebanon."