BEIRUT (AP) — An unseasonal sandstorm swept across the Mideast on Tuesday, blanketing Beirut and Damascus, causing the deaths of at least five people and sending hundreds of others to hospitals with breathing difficulties, officials said.
Reduced visibility prompted the Syrian government to call off airstrikes against rebel fighters, local media reported, and threatened planned protests by Lebanese activists over the government's inability to deal with the country's rampant trash crisis.
The storm also hit Jordan, Israel and Egypt. In Jordan, schools shut down or cut their days short.
Syria's state-run news agency SANA said three people in the central Hama province died from the sandstorm, without elaborating, and said there were more than 3,500 cases of people with breathing difficulties across several provinces.
The sandstorm reached Beirut on Tuesday, a day after it engulfed eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. People, especially those with health issues, were advised to stay indoors while many of those who ventured onto the streets donned surgical masks.
The Lebanese Health Ministry said 750 people suffered breathing problems across the country, and that two women died because of the sandstorm, without providing details. Two boats set adrift were rescued by coast guard, the National News Agency said. Airport officials reported some flight delays.
Lebanese authorities warned residents against burning trash that has piled up on Beirut streets this summer, sparking a political crisis and daily protests.
Lucien Bourjeili, one of the protest organizers, said the bad weather may prevent some people from taking to the streets in a major protest planned Wednesday, though "this movement doesn't depend on the weather ... or one day."
In the Syrian capital, Damascus, the head of a major hospital, Adeeb Mahmoud, said over 1,200 people, including 100 children, had been treated for breathing problems since the night before.
"It is unbelievable. This must be some test," said Mansour, a Damascus resident, who gave only his first name. "It's hot. Temperatures are high and above that we have this dusty weather! It is something beyond reasonable. Enough please!"
The Syrian pro-government Al-Watan newspaper said the weather forced a halt in government airstrikes against rebel fighters north of the central province of Hama.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, said hospitals in the town of al-Mayadeen in the northern province of Deir el-Zour ran out of oxygen cylinders and were unable to take in more patients.