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Hezbollah Gunmen Seize Control of Beirut Neighborhoods

BY Admin  May 9, 2008 at 12:15 PM EDT

A masked Shiite gunmen in Beirut Friday; AP

At least 11 people have been killed and more than 20 wounded in three days of street battles in West Beirut between Hezbollah fighters and gunmen loyal to the government, security officials told news agencies.

The unrest has shuttered Lebanon’s international airport, and barricades set up by both sides have intermittently shut down major roadways. Lebanon’s army did not intervene in the clashes, which had tapered off into sporadic gunfire by early Friday afternoon, according to the Associated Press.

Leaders from the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah, a Shiite political movement with a powerful guerrilla army, said Thursday that the Lebanese government had declared war on the group by declaring its private telecommunications network an illegal threat to state security.

As part of Hezbollah’s retaliation, the satellite TV station affiliated with the party of Lebanon’s top Sunni lawmaker, Saad Hariri, was forced off the air and gunmen set the offices of the party’s newspaper, Al-Mustaqbal, on fire, the AP reported.

Lebanese lawmakers and pro-government majority officials held an emergency meeting northeast of Beirut, according to LBC TV, a pro-government Christian station. Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and several ministers were holed up in Saniora’s downtown office surrounded by security forces, in a scene reminiscent of other recent Beirut standoffs.

“Even if Hezbollah’s militia took everything, we remain the constitutional authority,” Cabinet Minister Ahmed Fatfat told Al-Arabiya TV from Saniora’s compound, according to the AP.

Another top pro-government leader called for dialogue.

“The party (Hezbollah), regardless of its military strength, cannot annul the other,” Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze minority, told LBC TV, according to Reuters. “Dialogue alone brings results. Running away from dialogue is not useful.”

The Lebanese government currently holds only a slim majority in parliament. Majority and Hezbollah-led opposition lawmakers have been locked in a 17-month power struggle that has kept government at a standstill and the country without a president since November.

The sectarian tensions also appear to be fueled in part by the rivalry between predominantly Shiite Iran, which sponsors Hezbollah, and Sunni Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which largely support the Lebanese government.

Hezbollah has opposed plans for electing a president before there is a broader agreement on a new cabinet and a new election law, the New York Times reported.

“The government’s proposal did not offer anything new on how to solve the political crisis,” Talal Atrissi, a political sociology professor at the Lebanese University, told the Times. “So one of the scenarios would be to continue fighting until either the government publicly backs off or the opposition agrees to hold dialogue.”

Arab foreign ministers called an emergency meeting for Sunday in Cairo, Egypt to discuss the crisis, Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said.

Residents in parts of Beirut affected by the fighting, meanwhile, spent a difficult night amid the unrest.

“It was terrifying during the night. We couldn’t even move about in the house,” a resident of Ras al-Nabae, who decided to flee the area at first light with her children, told Reuters. “We spent the night in the corridor.”