Beirut street clashes turn deadly

At least seven people were killed in fierce fighting between government and opposition supporters in the Lebanese capital amid fears that the current crisis could spiral into a civil war. (Report: N. Rushworth)


Deadly clashes between government and opposition supporters erupted in several neighborhoods in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, killing at least five and wounding several others, according to government and security sources.


Gunfire and explosions rocked many mixed Shia and Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut, where Hezbollah supporters have been locked in a standoff with government supporters, according to FRANCE 24 correspondent Jean-Marie Ouemener, reporting from Beirut.


Armed militants from the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal movements clashed with Sunni pro-government fighters in the worst violence to rock the Lebanese capital since the end of the brutal 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war.


The violence also spread to several locations in the BekaaValley, in eastern Lebanon. The situation, according to Quemener, was moving from “a political crisis to a civil war."


“The security situation is serious,” Henri Helou, an MP from the anti-Syrian majority coalition told FRANCE 24 in a phone interview. “It’s reminiscent of the civil war years,” he added, referring to the brutal war that ripped Lebanon from 1975 to 1990.


In fiery speech, Nasrallah talks of a ‘declaration of war’


Shortly before the clashes erupted, Hezbollah’s fiery chief issued a stark warning to the Lebanese government during a rare press conference via video link.


“Should anyone attempt to seize our weapons, we would turn them against him in order to defend our rights,” warned the Hezbollah chief, in the first indication that his militia would be ready to fire on fellow Lebanese citizens. So far, Nasrallah had repeatedly stressed that weapons would only be aimed at neighbouring Israel.


Nasrallah also warned that the government’s attempts to investigate the Shia movement’s communications network were tantamount to a “declaration of war” and vowed to "cut off the hand" that attempted to dismantle it.


He was referring to Tuesday’s decision to launch a probe into a communications network allegedly set up by Hezbollah. The pro-Syrian militia is also accused of fitting surveillance cameras at Beirut international airport.


The fiery speaker also justified setting up a communications network for his movement, suggesting it was not merely “part of its arsenal but rather the very foundation of the armed resistance.”


Hariri offers a compromise solution, opposition rejects it


Reacting to Nasrallah’s speech , Saad Hariri, leader of the governing coalition and son of slain Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, offered a solution to “save Lebanon from hell.”


Hariri’s proposals included the withdrawal of armed factions from the streets and a “return to the dialogue table.”


He also proposed a compromise on the Hezbollah communications network issue, terming it a “misunderstanding” and calling upon the Lebanese Army – an institution considered neutral by both sides – to intervene.


But his proposition was rejected by the pro-Syrian Lebanese opposition. Quoting an opposition source, Hezbollah's al-Manar TV said the opposition rejected any ideas for ending the conflict other than those proposed by Nasrallah himself.


 'A call for the murder' of senior officials


Reacting to the speech, Lebanese Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, a leader of the “March 14 Alliance,” said the Shia leader’s statements amounted to “a call for the murder” of senior figures in the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority.


The March 14 Alliance is a coalition of anti-Syrian political parties and independents, including Hariri’s Future Movement. 


Following Thursday clashes in Beirut, the US government called on Hezbollah to stop its “disruptive activities in Lebanon."


"Hezbollah needs to make a choice: be a terrorist organization or be a political party, but quit trying to be both," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "They need to start playing a constructive role and stop their disruptive activities now."

Beirut airport remains shut


Opposition forces continued their protests Thursday, a day after clashes broke out between government and opposition supporters amid a general strike in favour of pay rises.


Hezbollah and its Shia allies began blocking access routes to Beirut’s international airport, as well as key roads in the Lebanese capital Wednesday.


These clashes, which began during a general strike called by labour unions over price rises, quickly degenerated into confrontations between Shia opposition supporters and followers of the Future Movement party, lead by Saad Hariri, a Sunni and the son of assassinated Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.


The international airport, situated in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, was closed Thursday and flights were cancelled.


The Lebanese military, one of few non-partisan institutions in a country rapidly dividing along sectarian lines, has warned that the situation threatened its unity. "If the situation continues, everyone will lose and that will undermine the unity of the military institution," said an official statement from the Lebanese Army central command.


For his part, Rachid Kabbani, a senior Lebanese Sunni cleric, strongly condemned Hezbollah’s actions late Wednesday evening, calling on the Shia group to evacuate occupied roads as well as access routes to the airport. Kabbani also issued a call to other Arab and Muslim governments to intervene in the current crisis.


Lebanon is experiencing its worst political crisis since the end of the civil war in 1990, and has been without a head of state since Nov. 24, due to an internal power struggle between pro andanti-Syrian political groups.


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