'Lebanese gov't has declared war on us'
Associated Press , THE JERUSALEM POST
May 8, 2008

A Lebanese government decision to declare Hizbullah's telecommunications network illegal amounts to a "declaration of war," the organization's leader Hassan Nasrallah said Thursday.

The US-backed government on Tuesday declared the military telecommunications network illegal and said it was a threat to state security. The government also said it would dismiss the security chief of the country's only international airport because he was suspected of ties to Iranian - and Syrian - Hizbullah.

Nasrallah vowed to fight any attempts to disarm Hizbullah members saying: "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."

Celebratory gunfire rang out in Beirut as Nasrallah spoke by videolink from a hiding place in remarks broadcast live on television. The Hizbullah leader rarely appears in public for fear of assassination by Israel.

Fighting intensified after the Hizbullah leader warned of swift retaliation to any attacks on them. Rival Sunni politician Rafik Hariri later attempted to calm the situation by offering a compromise.

Within minutes of his address machine gun fire and explosions rang out in the Muslim western sector of Beirut as masked gunmen opened fire on street corners. In troubled neighborhoods, people stayed indoors, huddled in hallways or staircases as armed men rushed from one street corner to another.

The government's decisions sparked sectarian clashes between supporters of Hizbullah and the government over the past two days. The violence emerged out of a long-simmering power struggle between the Hizbullah-led opposition and the Western-backed government for control of the country.

Television footage showed gunmen taking cover on street corners next to shuttered shops.

Earlier in the same area, troops in armored carriers moved in to separate both sides who traded insults and threw stones at each other.

There was no immediate word on casualties in the latest Beirut fighting.

"The decision is tantamount to a declaration of war ... on the resistance and its weapons in the interest of America and Israel," Nasrallah said.

He offered a way out of latest crisis, saying the "illegitimate" government must revoke its decisions against Hezbollah.

He said the telecommunications network was "the most important part of the weapons of the resistance" and added Hizbullah had a duty to defend those weapons.

Hizbullah runs its own secure network of primitive private land lines. Nasrallah claimed the network helped the group fight the IDF in the Second Lebanon War. He and other Hizbullah leaders have suggested they are regularly targeted by Israel and they need secure communications.

"I am not declaring war. I am declaring a decision of self-defense," he said. The government has "crossed all the red lines. We will not be lenient with anyone."

He said Maj. Gen. Wafiq Shukeir, the airport security chief that the government decided to remove, will stay in his post, rejecting any replacement.

The government's decision to replace him came after pro-government leader Walid Jumblatt alleged Hizbullah had set up cameras near the airport - which is located in the Hizbullah stronghold of south Beirut - to monitor the movement of anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians and foreign dignitaries. Jumblatt suggested Hizbullah was planning to bomb aircraft to assassinate such figures.

Hizbullah supporters kept the road to the airport blocked for a second day Thursday. There were no incoming flights on Thursday and many of the outgoing ones were either postponed or canceled.

In an apparent retaliation for the airport siege, government supporters blocked the main coastal highway linking Beirut with predominantly Shi'ite southern Lebanon.

These events could have implications for the entire Mideast at a time when Sunni-Shi'ite tensions already are high. The tensions are fueled in part by the growing rivalry between Iran, which sponsors Hizbullah, and Sunni Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Egypt said it will convene an emergency Arab Foreign Ministers meeting to discuss the situation in Lebanon, according to the foreign minister's spokesman Hossam Zaki. He didn't say when.

Nasrallah rejected accusations by pro-government groups that Hizbullah was bent on staging a coup.

Original article: Jerusalem Post
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