Violence Paralyzes Beirut for Second Day

Witnesses and security officials say Shiite supporters of Hezbollah and Sunni backers of Lebanon's U.S.-allied government are clashing with automatic rifles and grenades. (May 8) Video by AP
By Alia Ibrahim and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers and Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 9, 2008

BEIRUT, May 8 -- Fierce clashes continued for a second day in Lebanon after the leader of the Shiite Hezbollah movement accused the government of declaring war on his party.

Heavy fighting between supporters of the pro-Western government and the opposition, which is backed by Syria and Iran, left five people dead and at least 10 injured, according to police and hospital officials.

Makeshift barriers divided neighborhoods across Beirut, whose streets were empty of traffic. Masked armed men in civilian clothes set up checkpoints and asked passersby for their identity cards.

The clashes took on a sectarian cast as mainly Shiite opposition members battled predominantly Sunni supporters of the government. Christian Lebanese on both sides of the country's political divide largely stayed out of the fighting.

At the United Nations, special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen warned the Security Council that the outbreak of fighting was the worst since the country's 1975-1990 civil war. U.S. officials condemned Hezbollah and said the United States and other governments would also hold Syria responsible.

Lebanon's political crisis deepened this week after the government announced it would dismantle a Hezbollah telecommunications network and reassign a Shiite army officer in charge of security at Beirut's international airport.

After a relatively calm morning, clashes worsened Thursday afternoon following a speech and news conference by Hezbollah's secretary general, Hasan Nasrallah, who said the party would defend its communications system.

"The government's decisions were a declaration of war, and we have to defend our weapons. . . . Weapons will be used to defend the weapons," he said, demanding that the "black gang" -- a reference to the government -- withdraw its "dark decisions."

Later in the evening, pro-government parliament member Saad Hariri proposed a four-point plan to avoid further escalation, including the election of army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman as president and the resumption of national dialogue. Lebanon's political crisis started with the resignation of Shiite ministers from the cabinet in 2006 and has left the country without a president since last November.

Lebanese politicians say they support Suleiman, but they have been unable to convene parliament in order to elect him.

Hezbollah and Amal, an allied Shiite movement, declared Hariri's initiative unacceptable, insisting that the initiatives in the streets would be suspended only after Nasrallah's conditions had been met.

Many Lebanese believe that any solution to the present crisis must be sponsored by outside forces, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, which would intervene to avoid full-scale Sunni-Shiite strife.

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