AFP – May 7, 2008
Deadly gunbattles erupted in Beirut on Thursday after Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah charged that a Lebanese government crackdown on his group was tantamount to a "declaration of war," raising fears of a full-blown sectarian conflict.
Lebanon, paralysed by a political crisis for 18 months, has been rocked by two days of clashes between rival factions, leading to urgent appeals for calm in the deeply divided country and a blunt US warning to Hezbollah.
Three people were killed in the fighting which erupted between supporters of the Western-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition in several mixed Sunni and Shiite Muslim districts of the capital, hospital officials said.
In scenes ominously reminiscent of the 1975-1990 civil war, Beirut's streets were virtually deserted as loud explosions and gunfire shook the capital, as gunmen, some of them hooded, fired at each other with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.
Nasrallah delivered his fiery speech on the second day of anti-government protests which saw supporters of the rival factions block roads with burning tyres and force the closure of Lebanon's international airport.
As many as 30 people have also been wounded in clashes over the two days in Beirut and other towns.
"The (government) decisions are tantamount to a declaration of war and the start of a war... on behalf of the United States and Israel," he charged during a rare press conference.
The government on Tuesday launched a probe into a private communications network run by Hezbollah, which is seen in the West as a terrorist outfit and which critics say has become a "state within a state."
The White House said Hezbollah must "stop their disruptive activities" while the UN Security Council appealed for calm.
"Hezbollah needs to make a choice: Be a terrorist organisation or be a political party, but quit trying to be both," said US national security council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
He said US President George W. Bush would discuss the turmoil when he meets Siniora in Egypt next week during a Middle East tour.
Security Council members were "deeply concerned" about the unrest, said John Sawers, Britain's UN ambassador and the current council president.
"They stress the need to uphold the security and sovereignty of Lebanon and express their support for the constitutional institutions of the country. They urge all sides to exercise calm and restraint and call for the immediate reopening of all roads."
Regional powers Saudi Arabia and Egypt voiced support for the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora while Arab League chief Amr Mussa, who has repeatedly visited Beirut to try to resolve the crisis, urged Lebanon's leaders to avoid any further escalation.
Parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri called on Hezbollah to lift its "siege on Beirut" and withdraw its armed militants, describing the sectarian violence as a "crime that must stop immediately."
Nasrallah said Hezbollah was ready for dialogue but demanded the government rescind its measures against his movement.
"The hand that touches the weapons of the resistance will be cut off," he warned. "We have the right to confront he who starts a war with us by defending our rights and our weapons."
The latest unrest erupted on Wednesday during a strike over price increases and wage demands.
"If this situation continues, everyone will lose and this will affect the unity of the military," the army command warned.
UN Middle East envoy Terje Roed Larsen told the Security Council that Hezbollah's separate paramilitary infrastructure "constitutes a threat to regional peace and security."
Israel, which fought a devastating war with Hezbollah in 2006, said it had no comment on the events in its northern neighbour, with foreign affairs spokesman Arye Mekel bluntly stating: "It's none of our business."
Protesters burned tyres and lit fires along the airport road, which remained blocked by large mounds of earth dumped by Hezbollah supporters, while government loyalists set up roadblocks and set tyres ablaze along the main highway to Syria and between Beirut and the southern coastal city of Sidon.
Many schools and businesses remained shut and most flights were cancelled although an airport official said eight planes had taken off in the afternoon.
Lebanon's political crisis has left the country without a president since November, when pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud stepped down.
While the rival factions have agreed to the election of army chief Michel Sleiman, they disagree on the make-up of the new cabinet and so far 18 sessions of parliament to choose a president have been cancelled.
Hezbollah's ally Amal warned that the situation could get out of hand.
"It is clear the majority is seeking an escalation and wants to push the country toward a civil war," an official told AFP. "What we are trying to do is calm down the situation."
As-Safir newspaper, close to the opposition, said the situation was a "stark reminder for the Lebanese of the dark days of the civil war."
Regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia warned those behind the latest incidents to "reconsider their position, and to realise that leading Lebanon towards turmoil will not bring victory to any party except extremist external forces.”
Last updated 10/05/2008