Fierce Fighting Breaks Out East of Beirut

Monday, 12 May 2008 08:07 By Nada Bakri, The New York Times | name.

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Lebanon Army Deploys but Clashes Rage On in Beirut    â€¢

    Beirut - Fierce clashes broke out on Sunday in the mountains east of Beirut between supporters of the Western-backed government and followers of Hezbollah, the militant group backed by Iran.

    The fighting, in the Shouf and Aley districts in the mountains overlooking the capital, Beirut, followed overnight clashes in the northern city of Tripoli that left at least two people dead and five wounded, according to security officials.

    Beirut, where there had been heavy fighting between Sunnis and Shiites since Wednesday, was calm on Sunday. Hezbollah and its allies began withdrawing their gunmen from the capital on Saturday evening, raising hopes for a truce after four days of street battles there.

    But with the underlying political crisis still unresolved, the worst violence since Lebanon's 15-year civil war ended in 1990 seems to have shifted to the eastern villages.

    Security officials put the toll of five days of fighting at 44 dead and 128 wounded.

    Hezbollah's military dominance, and its continuing blockade of the main road to Beirut's airport, have raised pressure on the governing coalition to accept a resolution of Lebanon's 17-month political crisis on terms favorable to Hezbollah and its allies in the opposition.

    Supporters of the Druse leader, Walid Jumblatt, who is allied with the government, and Hezbollah gunmen and their Druse allies exchanged machine gun fire and rockets in several villages, a day after Hezbollah accused Mr. Jumblatt's followers of killing two of its members and kidnapping a third. There was no word on casualties.

    Several hours after the clashes erupted, Mr. Jumblatt urged Talal Arslan, a rival Druse leader allied with Hezbollah, to mediate an end to the mountain clashes and allow the safe deployment of the Lebanese Army in villages where there was heavy fighting.

    Mr. Arslan agreed to a cease-fire, but sporadic fighting continued on Sunday night.

    "I tell my supporters that civil peace, coexistence and stopping war and destruction are more important than any other consideration," Mr. Jumblatt said in a brief television interview.

    In Beirut, Lebanese Army troops patrolled the streets, setting up roadblocks and taking positions after Hezbollah fighters pulled back from areas they had seized on Friday.

    However, many streets in western Beirut, including the one leading to the airport, remained blocked by opposition supporters.

    Hezbollah had agreed Saturday evening to withdraw its militants from the streets after the government said it would reconsider a decision it made last week to challenge the group's private telephone network.

    The government and the Hezbollah-led opposition have been locked in a stalemate that has prevented the election of a president, leaving the country without one since November.

    Hezbollah vowed to continue what it called a civil disobedience campaign, continuing to block the airport road, until the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora officially rescinded the decision on the telephone network and a solution to the political crisis was reached through dialogue.

    A government spokesperson said Sunday that the cabinet would meet in the next two days to discuss an end to the crisis.

    At noon, Mr. Siniora and some of his ministers and staff members held a moment of silence at the government building in honor of those killed in the fighting.

    After an emergency meeting in Cairo called by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Arab foreign ministers issued a statement urging an immediate cease-fire. They also condemned Hezbollah's use of weapons against the Lebanese and said they would send a delegation to Beirut on Monday, led by Qatar, to try to end the violence.

    Walid al-Moallem, the foreign minister of Syria, which backs Hezbollah, did not attend the meeting.


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    Lebanon Army Deploys but Clashes Rage On
    Agence France-Presse

    Sunday 11 May 2008

    Beirut - The army deployed across much of Lebanon on Sunday after Hezbollah ceded control of west Beirut but clashes raged on in the north and in the Druze mountains as Arab foreign ministers held crisis talks.

    Heavy machine-gun fire and loud explosions echoed through a number of villages in the district of Aley as Druze majority leader Walid Jumblatt urged his rival Talal Arslan, who is allied with the Hezbollah-led opposition, to place the area under army control.

    "Civil peace and halting the destruction are paramount," Jumblatt told Lebanese television. He also asked his supporters to lay down their weapons.

    Arslan also called on opposition fighters to halt the fighting.

    Shortly after the appeals the army began deploying in the area.

    A security official told AFP that the casualty toll from five days of fighting that have raised the spectre of renewed civil war now totals 42 dead and 164 wounded.

    Earlier on Sunday the army moved into the main northern city of Tripoli where fierce sectarian clashes left one woman dead and at least five people wounded overnight.

    Calm returned to the capital Beirut after four days of deadly violence between Shiite militants of Hezbollah and their pro-government Sunni opponents.

    However, some barricades put up by Hezbollah remained in place and the road to Beirut airport was shut for a fifth straight day, in the face of a continuing civil disobedience campaign by the opposition.

    The takeover of west Beirut was a dramatic display of Hezbollah's military might and marked a turning point in the opposition group's long-running power struggle with the government.

    The Future Movement of Sunni Prime Minister Fuad Siniora accused its opponents of launching a "jihad" (Muslim holy war) on the Lebanese capital and of trying to "turn Beirut into another Baghdad," in an allusion to the sectarian killing that has gripped the Iraqi capital.

    Arab League foreign ministers meanwhile held emergency talks on Lebanon in Cairo in the absence of Syria's top diplomat, whose country has been blamed for the troubles.

    Pro-Western Arab governments led by Egypt put forward a draft resolution implicitly condemning Hezbollah for the violence but it met with opposition from some delegations, delegates said.

    The draft called for the "rejection of the use of armed violence to achieve political goals outside the framework of constitutional legitimacy, and the need for a withdrawal of all weapons from the streets," according to a text obtained by AFP.

    The latest violence was sparked by a government crackdown on a telephone network run by Hezbollah and the sacking of the airport security chief over his alleged links to the militant group.

    Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said the measures amounted to a declaration of war, with ensuing clashes leading to the opposition taking over large swathes of west Beirut.

    The opposition pulled back its militants from Beirut after the army reversed the government's decisions and deployed in the affected areas.

    Many Lebanese, including cabinet ministers, observed a minute of silence on Sunday for the victims of the violence, heeding a call by the embattled premier who described Hezbollah's power grab as an armed coup.

    Syrian official daily Al-Baath said on Sunday that Hezbollah had foiled a US-planned coup to seize control of Lebanon.

    "The Americans launched a pre-emptive strike against opposition nationalist forces, starting with the (Hezbollah) resistance, and attempted a Washington-planned coup but were taken aback by the opposition, which restored order in Lebanon," it said.

    The White House welcomed the lessening of violence in Beirut but warned that "our concerns regarding Hezbollah are unchanged."

    "They continue to be a destabilising force there with the backing of their supporters, Iran and Syria," US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

    Amid the tensions, foreigners continued to leave Lebanon by road to Syria, although the eastern border crossing of Masnaa was still blocked by pro-government supporters.

    Lebanon's political standoff, which erupted in November 2006 when six pro-Syrian ministers quit, has left it without a president since November, when Damascus protege Emile Lahoud stepped down at the end of his term of office.

    The crisis is widely seen as an extension of the confrontation pitting the United States and its Arab allies against Syria and Iran.

Last modified on Monday, 12 May 2008 08:07