Hezbollah battles Druze east of Beirut
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Shi’ites loyal to Lebanese opposition group Hezbollah battled Druze supporters of the ruling coalition east of Beirut on Sunday, adding to the worst civil strife since the 1975-90 war.
The fighting in Aley, a town in the mountains overlooking Beirut, and nearby villages was the latest violence between followers of Hezbollah, a group backed by Syria and Iran, and supporters of the U.S.-backed governing coalition.
At least five people were killed and 12 wounded, bringing the number of dead in five days of fighting throughout Lebanon to 49. At least 140 people have been wounded.
Hezbollah and allied Druze fighters took control of several village in the area, security sources said. A 6 p.m. (1500 GMT) ceasefire did not hold, witnesses said.
Smoke rises from Alley area during clashes between Hezbollah gunmen and Druze pro-government fighters in Mount Lebanon May 11, 2008. Shi’ites loyal to Lebanese opposition group Hezbollah battled Druze supporters of the ruling coalition east of Beirut on Sunday, adding to the worst civil strife since the 1975-90 war.
REUTERS/ Mohamed Azakir
Black smoke rose from several villages as explosions and sound of gunfire echoed in the pine-covered hills and valleys of the picturesque area.
Arab foreign ministers, meeting in emergency session in Cairo, appealed for a ceasefire in Lebanon.
“The council (of Arab foreign ministers) appeals for an immediate halt of bombings and shooting, and the withdrawal of gunmen… and the enabling of the army to deploy in those areas,” the Arab League said in a statement read by Deputy Secretary-General Ahmed Bin Hilli.
An 18-month-old political conflict between the opposition and governing coalition spilled into open warfare on Wednesday after the government decided to move against a military communications network operated by Hezbollah and sacked the head of security at Beirut airport, who is close to the group. Hezbollah called the move a declaration of war, saying the network had played a crucial role in its 34-day war with Israel in 2006.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose followers were battling Hezbollah supporters in Aley, called on Talal Arsalan, a Druze leader allied to the Shi’ite group, to mediate an end to the fighting.
“I tell my supporters that civil peace, coexistence and stopping war and destruction are more important than any other consideration,” Jumblatt told the pro-government LBC television station by telephone.
Arsalan later appealed to Hezbollah to hold its fire and said he would contact the army command to deploy forces in the area.
The latest clashes followed allegations by Hezbollah on Saturday that Jumblatt loyalists killed two of its members and held Jumblatt responsible for the safe return of a third member who was missing.
Hezbollah seized much of west Beirut on Friday after its fighters routed supporters of the anti-Syrian ruling coalition. Lebanese troops patrolled Beirut on Sunday after the group’s fighters pulled back from areas they had taken.
Hezbollah agreed to withdraw its forces from Beirut after the Lebanese army overturned the government decisions. However, the Hezbollah-led opposition said it would maintain a campaign of civil disobedience until all its demands were met.
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said his cabinet would meet soon to decide on Hezbollah’s demand and the army’s request that the government annul the decisions altogether. In Beirut, hundreds of soldiers backed by armored vehicles set up roadblocks and took up positions on the streets of the mainly Muslim part of the capital.
There were no gunmen in sight but youths maintained barricades on some crucial roads, ensuring Beirut’s air and sea ports remained closed.
Hezbollah, a political group which has a guerrilla army, said on Saturday it was ending its armed presence in Beirut after the army overturned the government decisions against it.
While tension eased in Beirut, there was little progress in efforts to resolve the political disputes.
Pope Benedict called on Sunday for dialogue and an end to the violence.
The United States, which considers Hezbollah a terrorist group, a threat to Israel and a weapon in the hands of its arch-foe Iran, welcomed the end of the Beirut fighting.
Iran blamed Washington and said it backed an internal solution to the political deadlock in Beirut, where the opposition demands a greater say in government.
The governing coalition accuses Hezbollah of seeking to restore the influence of Syria, which was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in 2005.
Lebanese soldiers in an armoured personnel carrier advance along an alley as they are welcomed by residents in Tripoli city, northern Lebanon May 11, 2008. Fighting raged overnight in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, between pro- and anti-government gunmen. Security sources said at least two people were killed and five were wounded in the fighting.
Lebanese soldiers backed by armoured personnel carriers set up roadblocks during clashes in a street in Tripoli city, northern Lebanon May 11, 2008. Fighting raged overnight in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, between pro- and anti-government gunmen. Security sources said at least two people were killed and five were wounded in the fighting.