Opposition gunmen seize control of key points (Lead)

May 9th, 2008 - 9:16 pm ICT by admin  

Beirut, May 9 (DPA) The Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah and its ally Amal Friday seized control of key western part of the Lebanese capital in the third day of armed clashes with pro-government opponents. The sectarian fighting had eased at midday, but sporadic heavy machinegun fire could be heard across he capital by the afternoon.

The rattle of gunfire and the thump of exploding rocket-propelled grenades rang out across mainly Muslim West Beirut during much of the morning as Sunni government loyalists fought street battles with Shia gunmen.

At least 13 people were reported killed in the fighting which began Thursday, and hospitals were making radio appeals for blood donations amid reports of dozens of wounded.

The fighting started Thursday after Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said a government crackdown on his Iranian- and Syrian- backed group was a declaration of war.

A hospital source said the dead included a Sunni man who, living with his mother, had been beheaded and was brought to the morgue in the afternoon.

“His relatives were accusing Shia militants of killing him inside their home in Ras al Naaba,” the source told DPA.

“We spent our night in the bathroom because it was the safest place,” said Salwa Hitti a resident of Beirut. “It was hell, armed militants were everywhere, shooting all over the place.”

Many Arab and foreign governments called on their citizens to leave Beirut or stay in safe areas. The city looked deserted in the afternoon, as most residents took advantage of the lull to flee to safer areas.

Masked gunmen armed with machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades were seen on roofs of buildings overlooking the residence of the majority government leaders.

Army tanks rolled through the streets and hundreds of riot police and troops patrolled the city, but did not get involved in the fighting.

Lebanon was largely cut off from the outside world, with the international airport and Beirut port shut, and some roads to Syria blocked by burning tyres.

Arab nations led by regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia were meanwhile pushing for a special session of foreign ministers to tackle the crisis.

Hezbollah, most powerful armed movement in Lebanon, also forced the shutdown of all media belonging to the family of parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri, while a rocket hit a checkpoint in front his Beirut residence.

Hariri, whose father Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005, had made a television appeal to try to calm the situation but this was rejected by Hezbollah.

Gunmen firing rocket-propelled grenades surrounded the headquarters of the Hariri’s Future Television and his movement’s Al-
Mustaqbal newspaper early Friday, forcing all its media outlets to close.

“The army is in control of institutions placed under its authority, such as the media outlets of the Future Movement,” the army said later.

“It also controls the area around the government headquarters, the central bank, major roads and the area where Hariri and Jumblatt’s residences are located in west Beirut,” referring to prominent Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

Air traffic was paralyzed for a third straight day with no flights scheduled to land or take off from Beirut international airport, an airport official said, after Hezbollah supporters blocked access with mounds of earth and burning tyres.

The situation intensified after Hezbollah leader chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah delivered his defiant speech on Thursday after the government launched a probe into a private communications network run by Hezbollah.

“The decisions are tantamount to a declaration of war and the start of a war… on behalf of the United States and Israel,” Nasrallah charged. “The hand that touches the weapons of the resistance will be cut off.”

Saudi Arabia, which backs the western-backed premier Fouad Seniora government, called for an urgent meeting of Arab foreign ministers, while Yemen suggested army chief Michel Suleiman be mandated to chair a dialogue to resolve the crisis.

Lebanon’s political crisis, which first erupted in November 2006 when six pro-Syrian ministers quit the cabinet, has left the country without a president since November, when pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud stepped down.

While the rival factions have agreed on Suleiman as a consensus candidate, they disagree on the make-up of the new cabinet and so far 18 sessions of parliament to choose a president have been cancelled.

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