Hezbollah tightens control of Beirut

On the streets of Beirut, fighters from Hizbullah continued to man checkpoints on main thoroughfares.

Hezbollah tightens control of Beirut

The Shi'ite movement Hezbollah tightened its control of the Lebanese capital on Saturday in a show of force after it routed gunmen loyal to the Western-backed government.

The United States, which considers Hezbollah a terrorist group, a threat to Israel, and a weapon in the hands of Iran in Lebanon, said it was talking with other powers about taking measures against "those responsible for the violence".

On the streets of Beirut, fighters from the Iranian- and Syrian-backed group continued to man checkpoints on main thoroughfares, although in smaller numbers than a day earlier.

Traffic was thin as many residents chose not to go to work and Beirut's international airport remained closed.

A few shops reopened after the army deployed in several areas but did not interfere with Hezbollah guerrillas, who in turn stayed away from main government installations in Beirut.

Hezbollah took control of the Muslim west Beirut on Friday in what the government and its allies described as "an armed and bloody coup". At least 18 people have been killed and 38 wounded since the violence began four days ago.

The United States criticised Hezbollah's links to Damascus and Tehran. A U.S. State Department spokesman said Hezbollah's actions were illegal.

Christian districts in east Beirut have been spared the fighting after Hezbollah defeated forces loyal to parliamentary majority leader Saad al-Hariri. Hariri's supporters still controlled areas in the north of the country and kept a key crossing point with Syria in the Bekaa Valley shut.

Hariri is a son of the late Prime Ministrer Rafik al-Hariri, whose assassination three years ago began the worst turmoil in Lebanon since the 1975-1990 civil war, which split Beirut into eastern Christian and western Muslim parts.


HIGH STAKES

Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which back Lebanon's government, called for an Arab foreign ministers meeting as early as Sunday.

"The meeting is an important step because Arab states have to assume responsibility regarding the situation in Lebanon. There are regional repercussions at stake and the situation must be saved," Arab League chief Amr Moussa told al-Jazeera television.

The fighting erupted after the government said it was taking legal action against Hezbollah's military communications network on grounds it was illegal. Hezbollah said the government had declared war.

Sounding a conciliatory note, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a key figure in the ruling coalition, said the government was only inquiring about Hezbollah's communication network, the main issue that ignited the latest crisis.

"Dialogue is the only way out," Jumblatt said, adding that the crisis was unlikely to deteriorate unless Hezbollah chooses to "liquidate" the pro-Western government.

The anti-Syria ruling coalition said the "armed and bloody coup" was aimed at increasing Iran's influence and restoring that of Syria, forced to withdraw troops from Lebanon in 2005 following Hariri's assassination.

Syria said the issue was an internal Lebanese affair while Iran blamed "the adventurist interferences" of the United States and Israel for the violence.

The crisis has paralysed political decisions, left Lebanon without a president and shaken the image it rebuilt as the business and entertainment centre of the Middle East in the aftermath of its civil war, although the sectarian political system that contributed to the war has remained mostly intact.

Reuters

Last Mod: 10 Mayıs 2008, 15:19
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