BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah group took control of the Muslim half of Beirut on Friday in what the U.S.-backed governing coalition described as “an armed and bloody coup”.
At least 13 people have been killed and 30 wounded in three days of battles between pro-government gunmen and fighters loyal to Hezbollah, a Shi’ite political movement with a powerful guerrilla army which is also an ally of Syria.
The fighting, the worst internal strife since the 1975-90 civil war, was triggered this week after the government tried to dismantle Hezbollah’s military communications network. The group said the government had declared war.
In scenes reminiscent of the darkest days of the civil war, young men armed with assault rifles roamed the streets amid smashed cars and smouldering buildings.
Fighting died down as outgunned government supporters handed over their weapons and offices to the army, which has mainly been seen as neutral during 17 months of political conflict between the Hezbollah-led opposition and government.
The anti-Syria governing coalition condemned what it called “an armed and bloody coup” that aimed to increase Iran’s sway and restore the influence of Syria, which was forced to withdraw troops from Lebanon in 2005.
The White House restated its support for the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and urged Iran and Syria to end their support for Hezbollah, whose followers have also brought large parts of Beirut to a standstill this week with roadblocks.
“We have confidence in the government of Lebanon,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters, adding that the United States was “very troubled” by Hezbollah’s actions.
A senior opposition source told Reuters that Hezbollah and its allies would maintain the road blocks, including barricades on routes to the airport, until a full resolution of the crisis. “All issues are linked. Beirut will remain shut until there is a political solution,” the source said, referring to the dispute which triggered this week’s violence and the rival sides’ broader 17-month-long power struggle.
The protracted political crisis has paralysed the country and left it without a president since November 2007.
An influential pro-government leader called for dialogue.
Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze minority, said Hezbollah “regardless of its military strength, cannot annul the other”.
“Dialogue alone brings results. Running away from dialogue is not useful,” he told the pro-government LBC television.
The dead included a woman and her 30-year-old son, who were killed when trying to flee Ras al-Nabae — a mixed Sunni-Shi’ite Beirut district and scene of some of the heaviest clashes. “They were trying to flee to the mountains. Instead … they reached the hospital, dead,” said a relative of the victims, who declined to give her name because of security fears.
“It was terrifying during the night. We couldn’t even move about in the house,” said another woman — a resident of Ras al-Nabae who had fled the area at first light with her children. “We spent the night in the corridor.”
Hezbollah had steadily seized offices of pro-government factions, including the Future group of Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri, in the predominantly Muslim western half of the city.
Backed by gunmen from the Shi’ite Amal group, Hezbollah handed over the offices to the army. Hariri supporters also gave up their offices to the army elsewhere in the country.
Hezbollah also moved into Hariri-owned media outlets. Hariri’s television and radio stations went off the air. Opposition gunmen of the Syrian Socialist National Party set ablaze a building housing studios of Hariri’s TV station.
“It certainly leaves the government weaker and the Future movement weaker,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. But the group did not want to be seen as “occupiers of Beirut”, he said and handing control to the army appeared the most likely exit.
The European Union, Germany and France urged a peaceful resolution. Syria said the issue was an internal Lebanese affair while Iran blamed the United States and Israel for the violence.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Thursday the government had declared war by declaring the communications network illegal.
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.