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Beirut factions bring warfare back to streets

Lebanese soldiers stand guard Thursday as Sunni supporters of parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri burn tires to block the highway linking Beirut with Jiyeh, Lebanon. The street fighting is between Hezbollah and government supporters.

Associated Press

Lebanese soldiers stand guard Thursday as Sunni supporters of parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri burn tires to block the highway linking Beirut with Jiyeh, Lebanon. The street fighting is between Hezbollah and government supporters.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Running gunbattles raged in parts of Beirut on Thursday after the leader of Hezbollah accused Lebanon's Western-backed government of declaring war on his Shiite militant group. At least four people were killed and eight wounded in the capital.

In a grim reminder of Lebanon's devastating 1975-90 civil war, factions threw up roadblocks and checkpoints dividing Beirut into sectarian enclaves on the second day of clashes between Sunni Muslims loyal to the government and Shiite supporters of Hezbollah.

The army, which has stayed out of the sectarian political squabbling that has paralyzed the country for more than a year, did not intervene in the battles.

The chattering of automatic weapons and thumps of exploding rocket-propelled grenades echoed across Beirut. People huddled in hallways or staircases as gunmen rushed from one street corner to the next firing at their foes.

Soldiers patrolled in armored personnel carriers trying to keep the warring factions apart. Burning car tires and vehicles, debris and dirt used to barricade streets made parts of the city look like a war zone.

The unrest virtually shut down Lebanon's international airport for a second day, and barricades blocked major highways. Hezbollah first blocked roads in Beirut on Wednesday to enforce a strike called by labor unions, but confrontations quickly spread across the city.

Security officials said Thursday night that a mother and her son were killed when a grenade hit their apartment and two men were shot dead during the Beirut fighting. Eight people were wounded in the city and four more were wounded in a Sunni-Shiite gunbattle in the eastern Bekaa Valley, officials said.

Fighting intensified minutes after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah made a televised address charging that the government had declared war on his group when it decided this week to shut down Hezbollah's private telecommunications network. He warned against trying to disarm Hezbollah and said his fighters would retaliate swiftly if attacked.

"Those who try to arrest us, we will arrest them. Those who shoot at us, we will shoot at them. The hand raised against us, we will cut it off," Nasrallah said in a news conference via video link from his hiding place.

Later in the day, Sunni politician Rafik Hariri made a televised appeal to Nasrallah seeking to calm the conflict.

"My appeal to you and to myself as well, the appeal of all Lebanon, is to stop the slide toward civil war, to stop the language of arms and lawlessness," said Hariri, son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005.

Hariri proposed a compromise, saying the decision on the Hezbollah communications network could be made by the army command rather than the Cabinet.

The military has sought to stay out of the feuding, fearing a repeat of its breakup in the long civil war that wracked this country — home to rival communities of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christian sects and Druse.

Hezbollah's Al-Manar television and NBN TV of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said later that the opposition rejected Hariri's offer. Hezbollah views its private network of primitive phone lines as vital to its leaders' security. Nasrallah has said it helped his guerrillas fight Israel's army in the summer of 2006.

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Reactions to the crisis

The United States said Hezbollah needs to decide whether it wants to be a terrorist organization or a political party. "Hezbollah is trying to use violence and intimidation to overturn the decisions of a legitimate government," Gordon Johndroe of the National Security Council said. "They need to start playing a constructive role and stop their disruptive activities now."

Egypt's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said his country would call an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers to discuss the crisis.

The U.N. Security Council appealed for a halt to the fighting and urged dialogue to resolve the differences.

Beirut factions bring warfare back to streets 05/08/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 1:40pm]
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