BEIRUT, Lebanon -- At least five civilians were killed in Beirut yesterday evening during an hours-long clash between Lebanese soldiers and young Shiite Muslim men protesting electricity cuts, security officials said.
A dozen or more people were wounded in the melee when gunfire erupted as demonstrators were throwing rocks and fireworks at troops. Several residents in an adjacent Christian neighborhood were injured by a hand grenade, Lebanese television reported.
The violence came two days after a car bomb killed one of the country's top intelligence officials and 12 days after another blast struck a U.S. Embassy convoy, killing three civilians. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora declared today a day of national mourning and ordered schools closed.
"In these moments, our country is passing through its most difficult and dangerous times," he said.
The violence was the latest sign of deteriorating security. Lebanon has been paralyzed by a political standoff between two camps, one favoring the West and the other backed by Iran and Syria, over the formation of a new government.
The fighting erupted near the southern Beirut neighborhood of Ain al-Roumaneh.
Arab foreign ministers met yesterday in Cairo, Egypt, with representatives of the two Lebanese camps and called on them to end their deadlock, which has set the religiously and politically divided country perilously adrift. The ministers urged both sides to back Gen. Michel Suleiman, a Christian, as president when parliament convenes Feb. 11.
Hundreds of demonstrators, some wearing ski masks, gathered in the streets of the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiya to protest power cuts. They said the outages had left them with about six hours of electricity a day, compared with 21 hours for parts of central Beirut. They set tires ablaze and tried to block roads, including the route to the airport.
It remained unclear whether the gunshot victims, including an official of the Amal Party, were struck by gunfire from troops. In a statement, the army said it was launching an investigation to identify the shooters.
Many of the demonstrators said they were loyal to Amal, which is one of the groups in the camp led by the Shiite militia Hezbollah and backed by Iran and Syria. But Amal disavowed the Beirut demonstrations and called on protesters to clear the streets.
The pro-government Future Party led by pro-American politician Saad Hariri blamed Damascus and Tehran for the incident.
Borzou Daragahi and Raed Rafei write for the Los Angeles Times.