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Jan 22, 2011

" Leave Beirut before all hell breaks loose ! "

Lebanon's rumor mill is at full throttle, sparking panic and spreading a sense of foreboding, as a seemingly insoluble political deadlock that has left the country without government deepens.

A gathering of Hizbullah supporters in many western Beirut neighborhoods on Tuesday sparked rumors of a dry run in preparation for a takeover of the capital.

Anonymous mobile telephone text messages and even printed fliers this week have warned citizens to flee the city before all hell breaks loose.

"I got a BlackBerry message yesterday saying that the situation was bad and that we should leave Beirut," said one marketing student at the Lebanese American University.

"A lot of my friends got the same message."

Television channels have been feeding the psychosis, flashing unconfirmed incidents or loud sounds as latest news -- including of a purported military raid on a hotel allegedly housing militants, which the army has staunchly denied.

"Our nerves are frayed," said a resident of Ashrafieh, a Christian quarter in eastern Beirut.

"Everyone is jumpy and any rumor sends us into frenzy."

One woman, whose family is loyal to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, an ally of Lebanon's powerful Hizbullah, said she had been called home early this week after a relative received a tip-off.

"My brother called me yesterday in complete hysterics," said the 25-year-old, who requested anonymity.

"He said he had gotten news that something was going to happen that afternoon, and I left my office in Hamra (in western Beirut) and went home," she told Agence France Presse.

"Nothing happened."

Lebanon's rival parties are headed for a showdown Monday, as MPs head to the president's office to appoint a new premier after the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizbullah last week toppled the government of Saudi- and Western-backed premier Saad Hariri.

The government's collapse capped a long-running standoff over a U.N. investigation into the 2005 murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, Saad's father.

The deadlock has sparked fears of a repeat of the events of May 2008, when a protracted political crisis spiraled into sectarian fighting that left 100 dead and saw the Hizbullah camp force the closure of the Beirut airport.

Alarmed Lebanese have begun to throng banks across the country, transferring their savings from the local pound into dollars and withdrawing massive amounts, bank officials told AFP.

A U.N. official in Beirut said the organization's staff had also been advised to take extra precautions.

"It's incredible how panicked people are, withdrawing money and stocking up on water and food staples," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"They have created an atmosphere that is unbearable. The rumor mill is at full steam."

While embassies have not yet sent travel warnings to their citizens in Lebanon, international students have been advised by some embassies to leave the country before the situation worsens, university officials said.

"Some Arab embassies including Jordan and Saudi Arabia called their students yesterday and advised them to leave the country given the current situation," a Lebanese American University official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"Up until now, no one has left, but the university has asked all students to stay in their dorms in the evening and remain in contact with the dean of students."

Meanwhile, Lebanese across the country are doing their best to carry on with their daily lives.

But they cannot shake off the hovering fear that the next round of deadly violence is just around the corner.

"It's obvious that something is going to happen. After so many years, you learn to read the signs. All these feuding politicians are definitely not going to sit down and say a prayer together," said bus driver Hussein Ezzedine.

"There will be a war, and it will be soon. That's what I believe," the 56-year-old told AFP.

"Our rich leaders have the luxury to send their kids abroad, while we have to struggle with gas and bread prices on a day-to-day basis and worry about war and the safety of our children on top of that."(AFP)

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