BEIRUT, Lebanon – Several thousand Shiite Muslims enraged by a TV comedy that mocked the leader of Hezbollah took to the streets of southern Beirut on Thursday night, burning car tires and blocking roads — including the highway to Lebanon's international airport, police and witnesses said.
The trouble began shortly after a TV show on Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. — a privately owned Christian channel — aired in which an actor spoofed Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, wearing the Hezbollah leader's trademark black turban and sported a similar beard and spectacles.
Hundreds of Hezbollah supporters immediately went out into the streets of southern Beirut, the stronghold of Hezbollah. They carried pictures of Nasrallah and shouted words of support. They also blocked the road to the airport, but officials there said the country's only air facility remained open.
The numbers swelled to several thousand as more people took to the streets. The unrest spread to other Shiite neighborhoods of Beirut proper, where rioters blocked roads and burned car tires, the officials said. Troops blocked some roads in the commercial center in downtown Beirut to stop Hezbollah supporters riding on motorcycles from reaching the area.
Police did not interfere, but security officials said soldiers were deployed along some areas of the former demarcation line between Christian and Muslim neighborhoods of south Beirut to prevent the unrest from taking a sectarian tone.
The security officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
TV stations reported that more pro-Nasrallah protests were taking place in southern and eastern Lebanon, predominantly Shiite parts of the country where Hezbollah enjoys wide support.
The trouble over the program reflected the boiling political tension in this country between pro- and anti-Syrian camps. Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, has been accused by the anti-Syrian legislative majority of doing the bidding of Syria after Damascus was forced to pull its army from Lebanon 13 months ago under international pressure in the wake of the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri. Pro-Syrian factions accuse the parliamentary majority of working for the United States.
Hezbollah broadcast a statement on its Al-Manar TV station that said the TV show had "insulted the symbol of the resistance and its leader" but urged supporters "to exercise patience and end their action" while the matter is dealt with through the appropriate channels.
But the protests continued, prompting Nasrallah to make a direct appeal on Al-Manar by telephone early Friday, thanking his supporters and appealing to them "to end the gatherings and go home."
"We are keen on the safety, security and stability of this country," he said.
The program, "Bassmet Watan," which can be translated either as "A Nation's Smile" or "A Nation That Died," showed an actor in the role of Nasrallah talking about his alliance with Christian politician Michel Aoun.
The satire did not carry any insulting words of the leader, but ridiculed the group's continued assertion of resistance against Israel. One questioner asked the person acting as Nasrallah whether he would lay down his arms, and the man replied by implying the group will use every excuse not to surrender its weapons.
The mere depiction of Nasrallah, a middle-ranking Shiite cleric, was enough to enrage his supporters. Another element that may have angered Hezbollah loyalists is that the LBC TV channel is close to the Lebanese Forces, a former Christian militia during the 1975-90 civil war and a strongly anti-Syrian group in parliament.
The producer of the widely watched TV program, Charbel Khalil, issued an apology broadcast late Thursday. He said he deeply respects Nasrallah and depicting the leader "was not meant to offend him."
Hezbollah enjoys wide support among Lebanon's Shiite community of 1.2 million people, believed to be the largest sect in this nation of 3.5 million people.
Guerrillas of Hezbollah, which the United States lists as terrorist organization, frequently clash with Israeli forces along the south Lebanese border. It is under international and domestic pressure to disarm, but the group has rejected the calls, saying the weapons are needed to defend Lebanon against possible Israeli attack.