Shiite Hezbollah gunmen seized nearly all of the Lebanese capital’s Muslim sectors from Sunni foes loyal to the US-backed government on Friday following the country’s worst sectarian clashes since the bloody 15-year civil war.
At least 11 people have been killed and more than 20 wounded in three days of street battles and gunfights, security officials said.
The takeover by the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah presented a blow to US policy as President George W Bush’s administration has been a staunch supporter of the government in Beirut over the last three years.
About 100 Shiite Hezbollah militants wearing matching 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.
The Hezbollah takeover was peaceful in some neighbourhoods as the militants fanned out across the Muslim sector of the city.
Later in the day, Lebanese troops began taking up positions in some Sunni neighbourhoods abandoned by the pro-government groups, but did not intervene in the clashes, which had largely tapered off into sporadic gunfire by early afternoon. Some of the gunfire was celebratory in the air by the militants.
A senior security official said the army began deploying on some streets with the end of the clashes and would soon take over the Sunnis’ last stronghold of Tarik Jadideh.
In some cases Hezbollah handed over newly won positions to Lebanese troops, presumably after having made clear to everyone its strength ahead of the next round of negotiations with opponents over the country’s political future.
Hezbollah’s power was demonstrated dramatically on Friday morning when it forced the TV station affiliated to the party of Lebanon’s top Sunni lawmaker, Saad Hariri, off the air. Gunmen also set the offices of the party’s newspaper, Al-Mustaqbal, on fire in the coastal neighbourhood of Ramlet el-Bayda.
Lebanon’s army, which has stayed out of the sectarian political squabbling that has paralysed the country for more than a year, only intervened after the building was set ablaze. Troops provided cover for firefighters, who eventually extinguished the flames.
The army also evacuated employees from the TV station, but only after gunmen massed near it and threatened to destroy it, said Nadim Mounla, the station’s chief.
With top leaders Hariri of the Sunnis and Druse leader Walid Jumblatt besieged in their residences in Muslim western Beirut, officials of the pro-government majority held an emergency meeting in a mountain town in the Christian heartland northeast of Beirut, said LBC TV, a pro-government Christian station.
Earlier, a rocket-propelled grenade hit the fence of Hariri’s heavily protected residence, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the media.
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and several ministers were holed up in Saniora’s downtown office surrounded by troops and police.
The fighting could have implications for the entire Middle East at a time when Sunni-Shiite tensions are high. The tensions are fueled in part by the rivalry between predominantly Shiite Iran, which sponsors Hezbollah, and Sunni Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
The leaders of Qatar and Syria held talks on Lebanon in Damascus, which wields influence with Hezbollah and has close relations with Iran. Syria’s official news agency said the two sides agreed the conflict in Lebanon was an internal affair and expressed hope the feuding parties would find a solution through dialogue.
An emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo to discuss the crisis will be held in two days, said Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki.
“We entered Karakol Druse. There is no Jumblatt and no Hariri here,” a Shiite gunman told Associated Press Television News as they entered a pro-government neighborhood.
“We entered the neighbourhood. They threw away their weapons and ran,” said another gunman as one of his colleagues tore down a poster of Hariri.
The scenes were a grim reminder of Lebanon’s devastating 1975-90 civil war in which 150,000 were killed and parts of the city wrecked as it was carved into warring sectarian enclaves.
Street clashes exploded into gunbattles in parts of Beirut on Thursday afternoon after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah accused Lebanon’s Western-backed government of declaring war on his Shiite militant group. It was the militant leader’s strongest comments since Lebanon’s political crisis erupted 17 months ago.
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.
Officials with Lebanon’s pro-government majority called an emergency of lawmakers in a mountain town in the country’s Christian heartland, LBC-TV, a pro-government Christian station reported on Friday. But it was unclear who would be able to attend since several lawmakers were holed up in their homes or offices.
“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 has virtually shut down Lebanon’s international airport and barricades closed major highways. The seaport also was closed, leaving one land route to Syria as Lebanon’s only link to the outside world.
Hezbollah first blocked roads in Beirut on Wednesday to enforce a strike called by labor unions, but confrontations quickly spread and became more violent. Factions threw up roadblocks and checkpoints dividing Beirut into sectarian enclaves, and the chattering of automatic weapons and thumps of rocket-propelled grenades echoed across the city overnight.
The clashes are the latest turn in a test of wills between the Hezbollah-led opposition and the Saniora government.
The government, which is allied with the US 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.