Reuters: The takeover of the Muslim half of Beirut by Hezbollah triggered alarm in the Arab world and the West on Friday, and the embattled Lebanese government called it an armed coup by the Iranian and Syrian-backed group.
By Andrew Roche
LONDON, May 9 (Reuters) – The takeover of the Muslim half of Beirut by Hezbollah triggered alarm in the Arab world and the West on Friday, and the embattled Lebanese government called it an armed coup by the Iranian and Syrian-backed group.
The U.S. government on Friday restated its "unswerving commitment and support" for the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Egypt and Saudi Arabia called on Arab foreign ministers to meet urgently.
In Lebanon's worst internal strife since the 1975-90 civil war, gunmen battled on Beirut's streets this week.
A deadlock between the Hezbollah-led opposition and Siniora's anti-Syrian cabinet, backed by Washington and its Arab allies, has paralysed the country and left it without a president since November 2007.
The White House said it was "very troubled" by Hezbollah's actions and urged Iran and Syria to halt their support for the Shi'ite militant group.
The European Union, Germany and France urged calm and a peaceful resolution.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would telephone Middle Eastern leaders to discuss the crisis, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
"I would restate our unswerving commitment and support for the Siniora government," he said.
"They are doing all the right things … Its use and deployment of the military serve the best interests of the Lebanese people and Lebanon."
McCormack told reporters he was "not aware of any contemplation" of deploying U.S. forces in the area.
He denounced Hezbollah as "armed gangs … using violence and the threat of violence, to achieve some political end" which would only harm the Lebanese people.
McCormack said the United States had encouraged parties with influence on Syria and Iran to "tell them that they should use whatever leverage they have with Hezbollah, to tell them to pull back from these kinds of actions".
CRISIS TALKS URGED
Siniora's governing coalition pointed the finger clearly at Hezbollah's backers.
"The armed and bloody coup which is being implemented aims to return Syria to Lebanon and extend Iran's reach to the Mediterranean," it said in a statement read by Christian leader Samir Geagea.
Syria said the issue was an internal Lebanese affair while Iran blamed "the adventurist interferences" of the United States and Israel for the violence.
Saudi Arabia is a main backer of the Sunni-led government in Lebanon.
"Egypt and Saudi Arabia have applied for an immediate meeting of the council of foreign ministers of the Arab League member countries," Egyptian state news agency MENA quoted an Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman as saying.
"The meeting is expected within the coming two days," he added.
Israeli President Shimon Peres said Hezbollah was leading Lebanon "to the verge of a civil war".
"It has nothing to do with Israel. It's an internal split," Peres said. "It's a tragedy for them. It's a tragedy for all of us." Two years ago Israel went to war with Hezbollah after it captured two Israeli soldiers.
France offered to help warring factions meet for talks, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said.
"We call on everyone, each party, each force, to immediately stop the fighting and return to dialogue. We demand the barricades be lifted and the airport reopened," he added.
France and Italy said they were preparing evacuation plans for their nationals in Lebanon. Britain, France and Slovenia issued warnings against travelling there. (Writing by Andrew Roche; editing by Peter Millership)