Lebanon teeters on brink of civil war

Hezbollah-led opposition fighters seized control of pro-government strongholds in Beirut on Friday as gun battles rocked the Lebanese capital for a third day, edging the nation dangerously close to all-out civil war.

Gunfire and the thump of exploding rocket-propelled grenades echoed across west Beirut, where the fighting was concentrated between Sunni militants loyal to the Western-backed government and opposition supporters.

At least seven people were reported dead and dozens injured in street battles that erupted on Thursday after Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah declared that a government crackdown on his group was a declaration of war.

The fighting has triggered urgent appeals for calm from the international community amid fears that the long-running political feud in Lebanon could descend into full-blown sectarian conflict.

Lebanon’s economy could also be hard hit, with the shutdown of the country’s only international airport and the Beirut port.

Witnesses and Agence France-Presse (AFP) correspondents said several Sunni neighbourhoods in west Beirut — considered bastions of Lebanon’s ruling bloc — had been overrun by Shi’ite militants from Hezbollah and its ally Amal.

Fierce gun battles were raging in the mixed Sunni-Shi’ite-Christian neighbourhood of Hamra where opposition militants also appeared to be gaining ground, AFP correspondents saw.

Hezbollah, the most powerful armed movement in Lebanon, has also forced the shutdown of all media belonging to the family of parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri.

And a source close to the top Sunni politician said a rocket hit the outer perimeter of Hariri’s house in west Beirut on Friday.

“West Beirut plunges into urban warfare,” thundered the French newspaper, L’Orient-Le Jour.

Armed militants could be seen prowling about or hiding in buildings in the otherwise deserted streets of Beirut, in scenes reminiscent of the dark days of the 1975 to 1990 civil war.

“For the entire country, it is now a question of life or death,” an editorial in L’Orient-Le Jour said. “Nasrallah offered the government no other alternative than a humiliating retreat or war.”

Gunmen firing rocket-propelled grenades surrounded the headquarters of the Hariri’s Future Television and his movement’s al-Mustaqbal newspaper.

“All media channels have shut down and were placed under the control of the army after we received threats from armed elements of Hezbollah,” said a company official, who did not wish to be named.

‘Declaration of war’

Air traffic was set to be paralysed for the third straight day with no flights scheduled to land or take off from Beirut International Airport, an airport official said, after Hezbollah supporters blocked access with mounds of earth and burning tyres.

The United States delivered a blunt warning to the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah to stop its “disruptive activities” while United Nations Security Council members said they were “deeply concerned” over the crisis.

Nasrallah delivered his defiant speech on Thursday after the government 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 decisions are tantamount to a declaration of war and the start of a war … on behalf of the United States and Israel,” Nasrallah charged. “The hand that touches the weapons of the resistance will be cut off.”

Regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia, which backs the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, called for an urgent meeting of Arab foreign ministers to tackle the crisis.

Hariri, whose father Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in 2005, made a television appeal to try to calm the situation but this was rejected by Hezbollah.

“My appeal to you and to myself as well, the appeal of all Lebanon, is to stop the slide toward civil war, to stop the language of arms and lawlessness,” said Hariri.

Underscoring fears of continued instability, people rushed to stores to stockpile food and bread, while the United Arab Emirates began evacuating its nationals.

“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 spokesperson Gordon Johndroe. “They need to stop their disruptive activities now.”

He said US President George Bush would discuss the turmoil when he meets Siniora in Egypt next week during a Middle East tour.

The latest unrest erupted on Wednesday during a general strike over price increases and wage demands, which quickly degenerated into a confrontation between political rivals.

The long-running political stand-off, which first erupted in November 2006 when six pro-Syrian ministers quit the cabinet, 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. — AFP

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