After a speech by Hassan Nasrallah (photo), fighting in Beirout intensified on Thursday, the second day of anti-government protests. In his speech, the Hezbollah leader called a government crackdown on the Shia group “tantamount to a declaration of war”.
Fighters, in support of Hezbollah and the allied Amal group, exchanged fire with pro-government fighters, in what became the worst domestic fighting since the 1975-1990 civil war. In several neighbourhoods across the capital, automatic rifle fire could be heard.
Hezbollah says that by actions like the launching of an investigation into the Shia group’s private telephone network, the government has moved against it.
Tension escalated between Hezbollah and the government, when the cabinet said the group’s communication network was an attack on the country’s sovereignty.
Hezbollah says it is infuriated by government allegations that it was spying on Beirut airport, and by the cabinet’s decision to fire the head of airport security, who is close to the opposition.
A deal has been proposed on Thursday by Saad al-Hariri, leader of the Lebanese parliamentary majority and son of the assassinated former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. His proposition aims at ending the crisis by considering the government decision that have infuriated Hezbollah a “misunderstanding” and be referred to the Lebanese army.
“What fate are you dragging the Muslims to – are you dragging us back to civil war?”, Saad al-Hariri asked, criticising Hezbollah, in an own televised address.
‘Save Lebanon from hell’
Thanks to this move the commander of the army, Michel Suleiman, who has been neutral so far, will have the option to suspend the implementation of the government decisions.
On Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV an opposition source has been quoted, rejecting any ideas for ending the conflict, other than Mr Nasrallah’s demand that the measures be rescinded.
Clashes have broken out in other parts of the country, with another seven people reported injured in the Beqaa valley.
The Lebanese army did not participate in the fighting, which could change if the fighting escalated.
“If we have a situation where one group of people move into another group’s area – either Shia or Sunni – then the army may have to take much harsher measures and that immediately raises the question of ‘what is the future of the Lebanese army’, because it’s made up of all the citizens of this country, not just one group or the other,” said Robert Fisk, a journalist in Beirut, who spoke to Al Jazeera.
On Thursday, fighting occured on Corniche Mazraa, a major thoroughfare in the Lebanese capital. It has become a demarcation line, between mainly Sunni and Shia neighbourhoods, and the nearby Ras el-Nabeh area.
Shootings and explosions were also reported near the office of Aisha Bakkar, the Sunni spiritual leader allied with the government, and in Ein el-Tineh where the opposition-aligned parliament speaker has his official residence.
Later, the violence spread to Khandaq el-Ghamiq, which is adjacent to the centre of the city.
‘Calm and restraint’
On television, people watched armed and masked men, taking cover on street corners next to shuttered shops.
Urging all sides to return to peaceful dialogue, the United Nations council, in the US, called for “calm and restraint”, .
During a briefing, Terje Roed-Larsen, a UN special envoy to the Middle East, warned that the situation in Lebanon was the worst since the civil war. The council issued a non-binding policy statement, that lacks the force of a resolution.
“At the top of the agenda at the Security Council today is the issue of armed militias in the streets of Beirut and elsewhere” Roed-Larsen told Al Jazeera after the briefing.
“What we are seeing today illustrates the necessities of integrating the Lebanese militias into the army. Unless this is done I fear that what we are seeing today will continue.”
“Hezbollah needs to make a choice – be a terrorist organisation or be a political party, but quit trying to be both” said Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman. “They need to start playing a constructive role and stop their disruptive activities now.”
On Thursday, protesters continued, with many roads blocked by barricades of burning tyres.