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The mood in Lebanon remained tense Saturday, one day after the Shiite Hezbollah movement took control of several Sunni pro-government neighbourhoods.
The coalition in power has branded the opposition’s offensive an "armed and bloody coup" aimed at bringing Syria back into the country.
Hezbollah-led Shia opposition fighters and pro-government gunmen have clashed for three days in Beirut, mostly in the western part of the Lebanese capital.
Two partisans belonging to the Shia opposition died during Friday’s clashes, south of Beirut, according to a security official. Two women were also killed in separate clashes in the southern city of Sidon and Bar Elias in the Bekaa Valley, bringing the total death toll to 16.
The opposition’s Shia militants led by Hezbollah engaged in street clashes with the government’s Sunni partisans, notably the Courant du futur, the cornerstone of the majority anti-Syrian party led by Saad Hariri.
The capital’s port ceased all activity Friday morning, while the road leading to Beirut International Airport, blocked since Wednesday by the opposition (see diaporama), continues to be inaccessible and air traffic remains almost paralysed.
According to a spokesperson, the army has been deployed to protect “the government seat, the central bank, and the homes of Mr. Hariri and Walid Joumblatt (another pillar of the majority)” in Beirut.
A pre-civil war
Joseph Bahout, a professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris (IEP), told FRANCE 24 on Friday he was not surprised to see Lebanon in a new state of turmoil. “Since the end of summer 2006, Lebanon has been in what might be called a cold civil war, or a pre-civil war. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time,” said the Lebanon specialist.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, Lebanon’s telecommunications minister Marwan Hamadeh, a member of Saad Hariri’s March 14 Alliance, was clear as to who should be blamed. “We are in the presence of a coup d’etat led by pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian militia who have taken over a section of the city and closed down all media that do not suit their agenda,” he suggested.
From Damascus, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared that the unrest was a purely "internal affair," whereas Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both allied with the Lebanese government, have requested an emergency meeting of Arab states to discuss the matter.
Opposition Shia militants began on Thursday by barring access to Beirut’s main axes. The next day, they targeted strategic establishments such as the media. In particular, they cut off the TV station Future News, part of a terrestrial and satellite network belonging to Saad Hariri.
“The Amal militias fired at the buildings of the TV channel and told the army to interrupt transmission before launching their assault. The army then evacuated everyone. Nobody was hurt,” FRANCE 24 Beirut correspondent Jean-Marie Quemener explained. “They are really flexing their muscles… The Shia militias are winning the ground militarily.”
Escalation of violence
Tensions rose on Tuesday when the Lebanese government decided to dismantle Hezbollah’s telecommunications network.
On Thursday, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech in which he qualified the government’s decision to carry out an investigation on his telecommunications network as a “declaration of war.” His fiery address added fuel to clashes that had begun earlier during a demonstration over the escalating cost of living.
Saad Hariri has offered an emergency exit to the opposition, which was soon rejected.
The last deadly clashes in Lebanon took place on January 27, when seven people, four of them Shia militants, were killed by the army during a protest. There had been no such internal violence since the end of the civil war in 1990.