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Lebanon faces prospect of civil war

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"I told my sons: 'Stay where you are [at home]. Don't look for trouble,' " adds Adel, who would only give his first name.

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But on Thursday trouble found plenty of young men – including at least one of Adel's sons – who admitted knowing little about Lebanon's past civil war or how such strife as they are engaged in helped precipitate it.

Rabiah, a Sunni student, said his parents "were terrified" by the vicious street scenes. A chunk of thrown rubble cut the right side of Rabiah's face and eye: "They tried to stop me going out, but I ignored them. I ran away from the house."

Rabiah ran directly into a conflict that had been ratcheted up by politicians and their taunting rhetoric.

Hizbullah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said he had limited the strike to one day in the interest of peace, but declared that his Shiite party and its allies had the "strength to bring down the unconstitutional government tomorrow or the day after."

Michel Aoun, a former general whose Christian faction is allied to the Syrian- and Iran-backed Hizbullah, said after the strike that "surprises" were forthcoming: "You can't imagine what we have in store."

Then after the Thursday riots, which only came to an end when the Lebanese Army intervened, pro-government forces countered with their own warnings. Saad Hariri, the parliament majority leader and son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated two years ago, said: "Everyone has reached the red line, and here we have to back up and return to dialogue."

In a speech Friday, Mr. Geagea, whose Christian faction is pro-government, told Nasrallah that Hizbullah could not "alter the balance of power" in Lebanon: "If you go beyond democratic means, that will lead you to civil war, in which you will also not achieve your declared objective."

At street level, some of the worst clashes last week were between Christian groups, in Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli. Maronite Patriarch Boutros Sfeir complained that "such a reality makes our heart cry," as he noted that no sect was without blame.

"We used to think that some Lebanese were better than others," the Christian religious leader said, "but we discovered that all of them were involved in clashes and there isn't any difference between one sect and another."

Still, Christians are as concerned as any at the surge in violence.

"When we sit with [Muslims], we are brothers," says the armed Christian militant, speaking of his fears at his home. "But when Christians sit alone, we talk badly of them. And when Muslims sit alone, they talk badly of us. They don't like us, and talk of war."

"We want to live in peace, but in our way – freedom," says this militant, who says he narrowly missed being shot with a pistol on Tuesday when he went to open a road closed by Aoun supporters, fellow Christians. "We don't want someone to shoot up a shop if it sells arak [liquor], or throw acid in the face of a girl if she does not wear a veil.

"I hope it continues, this Sunni-Shiite fighting, and they kill off each other," says the militant. "They will kill our children after."

Such strong views are gathering voice in Lebanon, as activists openly chant sectarian taunts for the first time in years. Many of those on the front lines were mere toddlers at the end of the last civil war.

"We are really scared," says Deem, a Sunni woman studying for a masters degree in finance at the university. "The situation has not been safe, and no one knows about the future."

"It is a nightmare. But what I saw [in Thursday's clashes] was the beginning," says Deem. "It is a civil war already, and somebody should do something, to defuse it fast. The Lebanese need to do something."

Thursday after the clashes was "fine, everyone went home," she says. "But what about tomorrow? Or the day after tomorrow?"