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Hezbollah seizes most of Beirut
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Pro-government television station forced off the air

BEIRUT — Hezbollah gunmen have seized nearly all of the Lebanese capital's Muslim sector from forces loyal to the U.S.-backed government.

Security officials say at least 11 people have been killed and more than 20 wounded in three days of street battles in West Beirut.

The conflict has pitted supporters of the government, mostly Lebanese Sunnis, against the mostly Shiite supporters of the opposition Hezbollah movement. In many cases, Sunni fighters have reportedly thrown down their weapons and fled.

One of Friday's casualties was the satellite TV station affiliated with the party of Lebanon's top Sunni legislator, Saad Hariri, which was forced off the air.

Gunmen also set fire to the offices of the party's newspaper, Al-Mustaqbal, in the coastal neighbourhood of Ramlet el-Bayda.

Hariri and a major supporter, Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, are reportedly besieged in their West Beirut residences. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and several cabinet ministers are holed up in Saniora's downtown office surrounded by troops and police.

Gunmen loyal to the Syrian Social Nationalist party, a Hezbollah ally, set ablaze a two-storey building where Hariri's Future TV has its archives in the western neighbourhood of Rawche, about 100 metres from the Saudi Embassy.

A rocket-propelled grenade hit the fence of Hariri's heavily protected residence, security officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the media.

Meanwhile, pro-government officials held an emergency meeting in a mountain town in the Christian heartland northeast of Beirut, according to LBC TV, a pro-government Christian station.

“Even if Hezbollah's militia took everything, we remain the constitutional authority,” cabinet minister Ahmed Fatfat told Al-Arabiya TV from Saniora's compound.

The unrest shut down Lebanon's international airport for a third day and barricades set up by both sides closed major highways. The seaport also was closed, leaving one land route to Syria as Lebanon's only link to the outside world.

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

About 100 Shiite Hezbollah militants wearing camouflage uniforms and carrying assault rifles marched down Hamra Street, a normally vibrant commercial strip in a mainly Sunni area of Beirut.

They took up positions in corners and sidewalks and stopped the few cars braving the empty streets to search their trunks.

On nearby streets, dozens of fighters from another Hezbollah-allied party appeared, some wearing masks and carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Lebanon's army, which has stayed out of the sectarian political squabbling that has paralyzed the country for more than a year, did not intervene in the clashes, which had largely tapered off into sporadic gunfire by early afternoon Friday.

Troops then began taking up positions in some Sunni neighbourhoods abandoned by the pro-government groups. A senior security official said the army would soon take over the Sunnis' last stronghold of Tarik Jadideh.

In some cases, Hezbollah handed over newly won positions to Lebanese troops.

The sectarian tensions are fuelled in part by the rivalry between predominantly Shiite Iran which sponsors Hezbollah, and Sunni-dominated countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The leaders of Syria, Hezbollah's other major backer, and Qatar, which supports the Lebanese government, met in Damascus and Syria's official news agency said both agreed the conflict was an internal affair and hoped the feuding parties would find a solution through dialogue.

The Lebanese government, which is allied with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, has only a slim majority in parliament. The two sides have been locked in a power struggle that has kept government at a standstill and the country without a president since November.

The eruption of the long-simmering tensions appeared to be triggered by the government's decision this week to confront Hezbollah by declaring its private communications network illegal and replacing the Beirut airport security chief for alleged ties to the militants.

Hezbollah first blocked roads in Beirut on Wednesday. Confrontations quickly spread and became more violent on Thursday after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah accused the government of declaring war on his opposition group.

Hariri later went on television urging Hezbollah to pull its fighters back and “save Lebanon from hell.” He proposed a compromise that would involve the army, one of the sole national institutions respected by Lebanon's long deadlocked factions.

But Hezbollah and its allies swiftly rejected the offer.

Source >  Reuters

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