/ 12 May 2008

Clashes bring Lebanon death toll to 81

Clashes resumed in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli on Monday and security sources said at least 36 people had been killed on Sunday in fighting between Hezbollah and its pro-government Druze opponents east of Beirut.

Pro-government Sunni Muslim gunmen in Tripoli’s Bab Tebbaneh district exchanged machine-gun and grenade fire with Alawite militiamen allied to Hezbollah in the nearby Jebel Mohsen area.

Four people were wounded in the fighting, which later gave way to the occasional crack of sniper fire, witnesses said.

A precarious calm prevailed in Beirut, where politicians prepared to meet Arab League mediators to discuss how to end Lebanon’s worst internal battles since the 1975 to 1990 civil war.

Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies have swept through Beirut and hills to the east, routing loyalists of the United States-backed government before handing its conquests to the Lebanese army, which has stayed out of the fighting.

One source said the dead in Sunday’s battles included 14 Hezbollah fighters. Hezbollah-led forces overran several posts held by gunmen loyal to Walid Jumblatt in the Aley district before the Druze leader agreed to hand them over to the army.

The latest fighting in Lebanon, which began on May 7, has killed 81 people and wounded 250.

Hezbollah’s success has dealt a severe blow to the ruling Sunni-led coalition headed by Saad al-Hariri, son of the slain former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, in what is widely seen as a proxy confrontation between Iran and the United States.

Britain and Germany, which like Washington strongly support Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government, issued statements condemning the violence and backing the Arab League mediation.

So far Western and Saudi support for the government has done nothing to deter Hezbollah from exposing the military weakness of its foes.

While Hariri, Jumblatt and their Christian allies have backed down on the moves that sparked Hezbollah’s ferocious reaction — outlawing its communications network and sacking the head of airport security — they have shown little readiness to embark on major political concessions to resolve the crisis.

The government, backed by Saudi Arabia, has waged an 18-month-old power struggle with the Hezbollah-led opposition, supported by Syria. The contest has paralysed state institutions and left Lebanon without a president since November.

The United States has condemned Hezbollah’s onslaught, blaming Iran and Syria for the violence.

The destroyer USS Cole passed through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean on Sunday, Egyptian security sources said. The ship deployed off Lebanon in February as a show of support to Siniora’s government. Its current destination was not clear.

Some signs of normality returned to the capital, Beirut. But ordinary Lebanese were not confident the lull would last.

”We are living on our nerves,” Hoda, a housewife, said while stocking up on food. ”It’s clear the situation is very dangerous and we have to be cautious. Who knows how long this could last?”

Arab mission

Lebanese officials said they expected a Qatari-led Arab mission, formed at an emergency meeting of Arab foreign

ministers in Cairo on Sunday, to arrive in Beirut on Wednesday.

The high-level mission, which both camps in Lebanon have welcomed, is set to hold separate talks with rival leaders and seek an immediate end to the violence and direct talks between them.

The Arab mediators would also try to tackle the political crisis and secure the election of army commander General Michel Suleiman as president, the officials said.

Both sides had agreed on Suleiman as president but could not strike a deal over a new government and a law for next year’s parliamentary election. Hezbollah’s drive for control of strategic locations has increased pressure on the government to accept the opposition’s terms for ending the political conflict.

Opposition sources said the government must annul two of its recent decisions that infuriated Hezbollah and agree to direct talks proposed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, whose Shi’ite Amal gunmen have fought alongside Hezbollah. Then the opposition would halt its campaign and remove street barricades that have paralysed the capital and kept its air and sea ports closed.

Sources close to the ruling coalition said its leaders were waiting for the Arab delegation before making any decisions.

The coalition accuses Hezbollah of seeking to restore the influence of neighbouring Syria, which was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after Hariri’s assassination in 2005. — Reuters