AFP: Hezbollah fighters, their guns blazing, seized control of west Beirut on Friday after three days of deadly street battles with pro-government foes pushed Lebanon dangerously close to all-out civil war.
BEIRUT (AFP) — Hezbollah fighters, their guns blazing, seized control of west Beirut on Friday after three days of deadly street battles with pro-government foes pushed Lebanon dangerously close to all-out civil war.
Convoys of triumphant Shiite opposition gunmen firing into the air and flashing victory signs took to the streets after routing Sunni militants loyal to the Western-backed government of the divided nation.
As the fighting eased, the army and police moved across areas now in the hands of Iranian- and Syrian-backed opposition forces which have been locked in an 18-month power struggle with the ruling coalition.
But as foreigners scrambled to leave it was unclear what the immediate future would hold, amid fears the protracted political feud could plunge Lebanon back to the dark days of the 1975-1990 civil war.
Although the guns had largely fallen silent in the besieged capital, a security official said two opposition militants were killed in fighting south of Beirut, bringing the toll over three days of unrest to 13.
And both sides appeared unwilling to give any further ground, with Hezbollah insisting that the roadblocks that have paralysed much of the nation would remain until the government meets its demands.
"We are not carrying out a coup — all of this is related to the government's decisions," an opposition official said. "We are offering partnership… and they want to monopolise power and limit our share."
But Youth and Sports Minister Ahmed Fatfat ruled out any chance of the government going back on its decision to probe Hezbollah's private communications network — the trigger for the latest unrest.
"It would be easier for the government to resign than to revoke its decision," Fatfat told AFP.
Terrified Beirut residents had cowered inside their homes earlier on Friday as the rattle of gunfire and the thump of exploding rocket-propelled grenades rang out across the mainly Muslim west of the city.
Shiite gunmen fought running battles with Sunni government loyalists, routing them from their strongholds and forcing the closure of media outlets run by the family of parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri.
Dozens of people were also wounded in the fighting which escalated on Thursday after Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah called a government crackdown on his powerful militant group a declaration of war.
Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, hailed Friday's events as a "victory for Lebanon."
The unrest triggered urgent international appeals for calm, amid fears that any possible civil war could spread to the region.
Arab foreign ministers were set to meet on the crisis on Sunday amid regional Sunni Muslim fears about Shiite Iran's influence in Lebanon.
Lebanon's feud is widely seen as an extension of the confrontation pitting the United States and its Arab allies and Israel against Syria and Iran, which back Hezbollah — regarded as a terrorist group by the West.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Washington was "very troubled" by the crisis and urged Iran and Syria to end their support for Hezbollah.
"We urge Hezbollah to stop their attempt to defy the lawful decisions taken by the democratically elected Lebanese government," Johndroe said.
"We also urge Iran and Syria to stop their support of Hezbollah and its destabilising effects on Lebanon."
The US State Department expressed support for Prime Minister Fuad Siniora's government and the Lebanese army "for doing all the right things," spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Christian Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea accused Hezbollah of launching "an armed coup… that is counter to the constitution… and democratic principles."
Hezbollah, the most powerful armed group in Lebanon, was the only faction allowed to keep its weapons after the civil war to fight Israeli forces occupying the south.
In west Beirut, most shops and businesses remained shuttered while tanks rolled through the streets and hundreds of riot police and troops patrolled the city but with orders not to intervene in the conflict.
In scenes reminiscent of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, Lebanon was largely cut off from the outside world, with the airport and Beirut port shut and several key highways blockaded.
Hundreds of people flooded border crossings with Syria to escape the violence and foreign governments began putting evacuation plans in place.
An airport official said all Friday's flights were cancelled as the main road from Beirut was barricaded by Hezbollah. "As soon as they open the road, the flights will resume."
Witnesses told of chaos and fear overnight as people rushed to Beirut stores that remained open to stock up, while others were trapped in their homes.
"It was a hellish night. The armed militants were everywhere shooting all over the place," said west Beirut resident Rima.
Lebanon's long-running political standoff, which first erupted in November 2006 when six pro-Syrian ministers quit the cabinet, has left it without a president since November, when Damascus protege Emile Lahoud stepped down.
Israeli President Shimon Peres claimed the violence was fomented by arch-foe Iran to further what he said was Tehran's goal to control all of the Middle East.
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria — Iran's closest regional ally — said the unrest was a purely "internal affair" but called for dialogue.