Hizbullah seizes swaths of Muslim Beirut
Ap and jpost.com staff , THE JERUSALEM POST
May 8, 2008

Hizbullah gunmen seized control of key parts of Beirut from Sunnis loyal to the US-backed government Friday, in a dramatic show-of-force.

An ally of Hizbullah said the group intended to pull back, at least partially, from the areas its gunmen occupied overnight and Friday morning - signaling that Hizbullah likely does not intend a full-scale, permanent takeover of Sunni Muslim parts of Beirut.

The clashes eased by Friday evening as Lebanon's army began peacefully moving into some areas where Hizbullah gunmen had a presence.

Lebanon's army largely stood aside as the Shi'ite militiamen scattered their opponents and occupied large swaths of the capital's Muslim sector early Friday.

In one instance, the army stood aside as Shi'ite militiamen burned the building of the newspaper of their main Sunni rival - acting only to evacuate people and then allow firefighters later to put out the blaze.

The army has pledged to keep the peace but not take sides in the long political deadlock - which pits Shi'ite Hizbullah and a handful of allies including some Christian groups, against the US-backed government, which includes Christian and Sunni Muslims.

President Shimon Peres said Friday that it was clear that this onslaught was part of Iran's attempts to take over the Middle East.

"It is a tragedy for Lebanese residents," added Peres. "It has no connection whatsoever with Israel. It is internal conflict."

"As a human being and as an Israeli I pray that a civil war is avoided," he said, Army Radio reported.

Also commenting on the clashes, Syrian President Bashar Assad said that the situation is a result of internal Lebanese politics, report Army Radio Friday evening. He said he hoped that a solution would be found promptly.

Three days of street battles and gunfights capped by Friday's Hizbullah move have killed at least 14 people and wounded 20 - the country's worst sectarian fighting since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Three more people were killed in two separate incidents on Friday after the Hizbullah takeover. Two of them were Druse allies of Hizbullah who died in a shooting in a hilly suburb southeast of the capital late Friday, security officials said.

The takeover by the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizbullah was a blow to US policy as President George W. Bush's administration has been a staunch supporter of the government in Beirut over the last three years.

"We are very troubled by the recent actions of Hizbullah," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Friday.

"We urge Hizbullah to stop their attempt to defy the lawful decisions taken by the democratically elected Lebanese government. We also urge Iran and Syria to stop their support of Hizbullah and its destabilizing effects on Lebanon," he added. "We have confidence in the government of Lebanon."

The Hizbullah takeover was peaceful in some neighborhoods as the militants fanned out across the Muslim sector of the city.

Later in the day, Lebanese troops began taking up positions in some Sunni neighborhoods abandoned by the pro-government groups, but did not intervene in the clashes, which had largely tapered off into sporadic gunfire by early afternoon. Some of the gunfire was celebratory in the air by the militants.

A senior security official said the army began deploying on some streets with the end of the clashes and would soon take over the Sunnis' last stronghold of Tarik Jadideh. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

In some cases Hizbullah handed over newly won positions to Lebanese troops, presumably after having made clear to everyone its strength ahead of the next round of negotiations with opponents over the country's political future.

Hizbullah's power was demonstrated dramatically Friday morning when it forced the TV station affiliated to the party of Lebanon's top Sunni lawmaker, Saad Hariri, off the air. Gunmen also set the offices of the party's newspaper, Al-Mustaqbal, on fire in the coastal neighborhood of Ramlet el-Bayda.

Later in the afternoon, anti-government gunmen loyal to a pro-Syrian group attacked and set on fire a two-story building where Hariri's Future TV have their archives. The building, in the western neighborhood of Rawche, is about 100 meters from the Saudi embassy.

With top leaders Hariri of the Sunnis and Druse leader Walid Jumblatt besieged in their residences in Muslim western Beirut, officials of the pro-government majority held an emergency meeting in a mountain town in the Christian heartland northeast of Beirut

After the meeting, they issued a statement calling on the army to take control of the streets and urging Arab and international intervention to pressure the countries that support Hizbullah - meaning Iran and Syria.

"The bloody coup d'etat aims at returning Syria to Lebanon and placing Iran on the Mediterranean," said the statement read by Christian pro-government leader Samir Geagea. "Violence will not terrorize us, but it will increase our resolve," he said.

He said the Hizbullah takeover violated the constitution which governs Christian-Muslim coexistence in Lebanon.

Earlier, a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the fence of Hariri's heavily protected residence, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the media. Hariri is the son of assassinated former premier Rafik Hariri.

Late Friday, a group of gunmen fired about a dozen bullets at a statue of Rafik Hariri next to the seafront road where he was killed in a massive 2005 truck bombing. The statue was raised in February on the anniversary of the assassination.
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and several ministers were holed up in Saniora's downtown office surrounded by troops and police.

An emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo to discuss the crisis will be held in two days, said Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki.

Street clashes exploded into gunbattles Thursday afternoon after Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah accused Lebanon's Western-backed government of declaring war on his Shiite militant group. It was the militant leader's strongest comments since Lebanon's political crisis erupted 17 months ago.

Hariri later went on television urging Hizbullah to pull its fighters back and "save Lebanon from hell." He proposed a compromise that would involve the army, one of the sole national institutions respected by Lebanon's long deadlocked factions.

But Hizbullah and its allies swiftly rejected the offer.

The unrest has virtually shut down Lebanon's international airport and barricades closed major highways. The seaport also was closed, leaving one land route to Syria as Lebanon's only link to the outside world.

The clashes are the latest turn in a test of wills between the Hizbullah-led opposition and the Saniora government.

Original article: Jerusalem Post
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