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Lebanon teeters on edge of civil war

world Updated: May 09, 2008 12:11 IST
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Sectarian fighting rocked the Lebanese capital for a third day on Friday as the country teetered on the brink of a new civil war, prompting urgent appeals for calm from the international community.

Sporadic gunfire and the thump of exploding rocket-propelled grenades could be heard through the night in various parts of west Beirut, where the fighting was concentrated between Sunni militants loyal to the Western-backed government and supporters of the Hezbollah-led opposition.

At least seven people were reported dead and dozens injured in fierce gunbattles that erupted after Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah declared that a government crackdown on his group was tantamount to a declaration of war.

Armed militants could be seen walking about or hiding in buildings in the otherwise deserted streets of Beirut as gunfire rang out, in scenes ominously reminiscent of the 1975-1990 civil war.

The international community launched urgent appeals for calm in the deeply divided country amid fears of a descent into chaos after a bitter 18-month power struggle.

The managing editor of Al-Mustaqbal newspaper, which is run by the pro-government Future Movement, told AFP that opposition gunmen had circled the paper's building in west Beirut early Friday, firing guns and rocket-propelled grenades and setting fire to the fourth floor of the six-storey building.

"There are a number of journalists and officials inside the building but luckily no one has been injured," George Bkassini said. He said troops arrived in the area shortly after the incident.

Air traffic, meanwhile, was set to be paralyzed for the third straight day with no flights scheduled to land or take off from Beirut international airport, an airport official said.

The United States delivered a blunt warning to the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah to stop its "disruptive activities" while UN Security Council members said they were "deeply concerned" over the crisis.

Nasrallah delivered his fiery speech Thursday, on the second day of anti-government protests which saw supporters of the feuding factions block roads in various parts of the country.

"The (government) decisions are tantamount to a declaration of war and the start of a war... on behalf of the United States and Israel," Nasrallah charged during a rare press conference.

The government on Tuesday launched a probe into a private communications network run by the powerful Shiite movement, which is seen in the West as a terrorist outfit and which critics say has become a "state within a state."

"The hand that touches the weapons of the resistance will be cut off," Nasrallah warned. "We have the right to confront he who starts a war with us by defending our rights and our weapons."

Nasrallah said Hezbollah was ready for dialogue but demanded the government rescind its measures against his movement.

Majority leader Saad Hariri made a television appeal to calm the situation saying the army could be put in charge of the decision on the communication network.

"My appeal to you and to myself as well. the appeal of all Lebanon, is to stop the slide toward civil war, to stop the language of arms and lawlessness," Hariri said.

Underscoring fears of continued instability, people rushed to stores to stockpile food and bread, while the United Arab Emirates began evacuating its nationals from Beirut.

"Hezbollah needs to make a choice: Be a terrorist organisation or be a political party, but quit trying to be both," said US national security council spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "They need to stop their disruptive activities now."

He said US President George W Bush would discuss the turmoil when he meets Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora in Egypt next week during a Middle East tour.

Regional powers Egypt and Saudi Arabia voiced support for the Siniora government, and Arab League chief Amr Mussa, who has embarked on several missions to try to resolve the crisis, urged Lebanon's leaders to avoid any further escalation.

Former colonial power France described the renewed fighting as "worrying" and called for restraint, while the EU also told Hezbollah to start playing a "constructive role."

UN Middle East envoy Terje Roed Larsen told the Security Council that Hezbollah's separate paramilitary infrastructure "constitutes a threat to regional peace and security."

The latest unrest erupted on Wednesday during a general strike over price increases and wage demands which quickly degenerated into a confrontation between political rivals.

The long-running political standoff has left the country without a president since November, when pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud stepped down.

While the rival factions have agreed to the election of army chief Michel Sleiman, they disagree on the make-up of the new cabinet and so far 18 sessions of parliament to choose a president have been cancelled.