BEIRUT (Reuters) - Iranian-backed Hezbollah tightened its grip on Beirut airport on Thursday, piling pressure on Lebanon's U.S.-backed government on the second day of a protest campaign that has triggered gun battles in the capital.
Supporters of Hezbollah and its allies blocked roads leading to the airport -- Lebanon's only air link to the outside world -- and other main streets, paralysing much of the city.
Middle East Airlines, the national carrier, suspended departures for 12 hours until midday (0900 GMT) to "await positive developments". An indefinite extension of the suspension was expected later.
Sporadic gun battles erupted between Hezbollah supporters and pro-government loyalists in two villages in the Bekaa Valley in the east of the country, wounding three people, security sources said. Similar clashes took place in Beirut on Wednesday.
The confrontations have aggravated the country's worst internal crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.
"Beirut relives the chapters of sectarian and militia horror," the pro-government An-Nahar newspaper said on its front page on Thursday. "Lebanon in the mouth of the dragon," said the pro-opposition newspaper al-Akhbar.
An opposition source, declining to be identified, said protests would go on until the government rescinded decisions affecting Hezbollah, including action against a telecommunications network operated by the group. Government sources ruled that out.
"It's double jeopardy: the cabinet can't retreat or it is practically finished and can't go through with it to the end because of the balance of power on the ground," columnist Rafik Khouri wrote in the newspaper al-Anwar.
"And Hezbollah can't step back from its position because it would be agreeing to getting its wings clipped and can't go all the way because of the dangers sectarian strife poses for everyone."
Hezbollah said its leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, would give a news conference at 4 p.m. (1300 GMT) to discuss the crisis.
BOUTS OF VIOLENCE
Hezbollah, a Shi'ite Muslim group backed by Iran and Syria, has led a political campaign for almost 18 months against Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's anti-Syrian cabinet. Friction has already led to bouts of violence.
The group was the only Lebanese faction allowed to keep its weapons after the civil war, to fight Israeli forces occupying the south. Israel withdrew in 2000 and the fate of Hezbollah's weapons is at the heart of the political crisis.
Wednesday's events quickly took on a sectarian tone with clashes in mixed Shi'ite and Sunni neighbourhoods. At least 10 people were wounded.
Sunni Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rachid Kabbani denounced the actions of "outlawed armed gangs" and appealed to Hezbollah to withdraw its gunmen from Beirut. "The Sunni Muslims in Lebanon are fed up," he said in a televised address.
Political sources said army commander General Michel Suleiman had rejected a government idea to declare a state of emergency and impose a curfew. Siniora had told Future News television his cabinet was considering such a move.
Tension between the government and Hezbollah rose sharply on Tuesday when the cabinet said the group's communications network was "an attack on the sovereignty of the state". Hezbollah said it was part of its security apparatus and had played an important role in its war with Israel in 2006.
Hezbollah was angered by government allegations it was spying on the airport and by the cabinet's decision to remove the head of airport security, a figure close to the opposition, from his post.
Hezbollah has deemed Siniora's cabinet illegitimate since its Shi'ite ministers resigned in 2006 after he rejected demands for veto power against government decisions.
The crisis has paralysed much of the government and left Lebanon without a president for five months.
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