Hezbollah piles pressure on Lebanese government


  • World
  • Thursday, 08 May 2008

MYT 2:46:39 PM

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 gunbattles in the capital.

Passengers wait to leave Beirut's international airport, after the main road leading to the airport was blocked by Hezbollah supporters, in Beirut May 7, 2008. (REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir)

Supporters of Hezbollah and its allies blocked all 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 all departures for 12 hours until midday (0900 GMT) to "await positive developments".

Sporadic gunbattles erupted between Hezbollah supporters and pro-government loyalists on Wednesday, escalating the country's worst internal crisis since the 1975-90 civil war. Scores of gunmen from both sides were seen in several areas.

"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 al-Akhbar newspaper.

An opposition source, declining to be named, said protests would go on until the government rescinded decisions affecting Hezbollah, including action against a telecommunications network operated by the group.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.

Hezbollah, a Shi'ite Muslim group backed by Iran and Syria, has led a 17-month-long political campaign against Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's anti-Syrian cabinet. Friction has already led to bouts of deadly 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.

SECTARIAN TONE

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 to the Lebanese.

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.

The Lebanese army, mainly seen as neutral during the crisis, was deployed in Beirut but it refrained from using force to open roads and to stop the clashes.

Hundreds of Hezbollah followers and their allies spent the night manning roadblocks of earth, concrete blocks and old cars.

They kept up their campaign on Thursday, burning more tyres and building up their barricades. Most Beirut residents stayed indoors.

Tension between the government and Hezbollah rose sharply on Tuesday when the cabinet said the group's communication network was "an attack on the sovereignty of the state". Hezbollah said it was part of its security apparatus and had played a major role in its war with Israel in 2006.

Hezbollah was also infuriated 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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