Beirut hit by deadly street battles

Fighting intensified after Hezbollah’s leader said the government’s actions were “tantamount to a declaration of war”

Eight people have been killed and 15 people wounded in Lebanon, according to security sources, as the country’s political crisis threatens to spiral out of control.

Fighting in Beirut intensified on Thursday, the second day of anti-government protests, after a speech by Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, in which he called a government crackdown on the Shia group “tantamount to a declaration of war”.

Government offer rejected

Saad al-Hariri, the governing coalition leader, proposed a deal on Thursday to end the crisis under which the government decisions that have infuriated Hezbollah would be considered a “misunderstanding” and be referred to the Lebanese army.

The move will give General Michel Suleiman, the commander of the army – which has been neutral in the confrontation so far – the option to suspend the implementation of the government decisions.

But Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV quoted an opposition source rejecting any ideas for ending the conflict other than Nasrallah’s demand that the measures be rescinded.

In several neighbourhoods across the capital automatic rifle fire could be heard as fighters in support of Hezbollah and the allied Amal group exchanged fire with pro-government fighters in the worst domestic fighting since the 1975-90 civil war.

Clashes were reported to have broken out in other parts of the country, with another seven people reported injured in the Beqaa valley.

The Lebanese army did not participate in the fighting.

But Robert Fisk, a journalist in Beirut, speaking to Al Jazeera, said that could change if the fighting escalated.

“If we have a situation where one group of people move into another group’s area – either Shia or Sunni – then the army may have to take much harsher measures and that immediately raises the question of ‘what is the future of the Lebanese army’, because it’s made up of all the citizens of this country, not just one group or the other,” Fisk said.

Gun battles

“The fighting seems to be spreading,” reported James Bays, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Beirut. “It’s something all the political parties said they wanted to avoid.”

Thursday’s fighting occurred on Corniche Mazraa, a major thoroughfare in Beirut that has become a demarcation line between mainly Sunni and Shia neighbourhoods, and the nearby Ras el-Nabeh area.

The violence later spread to Khandaq el-Ghamiq, adjacent to the centre of the city.

Television footage showed armed and masked men taking cover on street corners next to shuttered shops.

Shootings and explosions were also reported near the office of Aisha Bakkar, the Sunni spiritual leader allied with the government, and in Ein el-Tineh where the opposition-aligned parliament speaker has his official residence.

Hezbollah speech

Fighting broke out after Nasrallah, in a televised address, said the political crisis in Lebanon had “entered a new phase” because of what Hezbollah claims are government moves against the Shia group, including launching an investigation into Hezbollah’s private telephone network.

“This decision is a declaration of war against the resistance [Hezbollah],” said Nasrallah.

“This decision [by the government] is designed to push the resistance and the military into direct confrontation.”

He warned that Hezbollah would act to stop any attempt by the government to dismantle the network.

Later, in his own televised address, al-Hariri, leader of the Lebanese parliamentary majority and son of the assassinated former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, put the blame back on Hezbollah, saying: “What fate are you dragging the Muslims to – are you dragging us back to civil war?”

He proposed a compromise solution spearheaded by the army – seen as neutral – to end the fighting and “save Lebanon from hell” and called for Hezbollah to lift its “siege” of the capital.

He also called for the immediate election of a consensus presidential candidate.

‘Calm and restraint’

In the US, the United Nations security council also called for “calm and restraint”, urging all sides to return to peaceful dialogue.

The council issued a non-binding policy statement, which lacks the force of a resolution, after a briefing by Terje Roed-Larsen, a UN special envoy to the Middle East, who warned that the situation in Lebanon was the worst since the civil war.

“At the top of the agenda at the Security Council today is the issue of armed militias in the streets of Beirut and elsewhere,” Roed-Larsen said, speaking to Al Jazeera after the briefing.

“What we are seeing today illustrates the necessities of integrating the Lebanese militias into the army. Unless this is done I fear that what we are seeing today will continue.”

The White House demanded Hezbollah stop “disruptive activities”.

“Hezbollah needs to make a choice – be a terrorist organisation or be a political party, but quit trying to be both,” Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman, said.

“They need to start playing a constructive role and stop their disruptive activities now.”

‘Tension rising’

Unrest began on Wednesday during a general strike, called by the main labour union over price increases and wage demands, which quickly developed into a confrontation between supporters of the government and the opposition.

Protests continued on Thursday, with many roads blocked by barricades of burning tyres.

The Lebanese army command issued a call for calm, saying that if the violence continued, it would affect the unity of the military.

Rula Amin, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Beirut, reported that people were trying to flee the city.

“Some people are leaving the capital to remote villages, others are walking out of their homes with suitcases, heading for the airport by foot, hoping that any plane will take them,” she said.

“Tension is rising – today violence spread outside the capital … You can see more and more people on the street with guns.”

Saudi Arabia warned the opposition against an escalation of the situation.

“The kingdom urges the groups behind the escalation to reconsider their position, and to realise that leading Lebanon towards turmoil will not bring victory to any party except extremist external forces,” the state’s SPA news agency quoted an official as saying.

Fears that the political conflict in Lebanon could escalate into sectarian conflict were heightened when Mohammed Rashid Kabbani, Lebanon’s Sunni grand mufti, spoke against Hezbollah for the first time.

“Sunni Muslims in Lebanon have had enough,” Kabbani said in a televised address from his office.

The Sunni spiritual leader referred to Hezbollah as “armed gangs of outlaws that have carried out the ugliest attacks against the citizens and their safety”.


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