BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah said on Thursday the U.S.-supported Beirut government had declared war by targeting its communications network.
Hezbollah launched a new street campaign on Wednesday, piling pressure on the government after it declared the network illegal and removed the head of airport security, a figure close to the group, from his post.
Supporters of Hezbollah and its allies have blocked roads leading to the airport — Lebanon’s only air link to the outside world — and other main streets, paralyzing much of the capital.
Sporadic gun battles erupted between Hezbollah supporters and pro-government loyalists in the Bekaa Valley in the east of the country, wounding five people, security sources said. Similar clashes took place in Beirut on Wednesday.
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, said the only way out of the crisis was for the government to rescind the decisions and to attend talks aiming to end a 17-month-long political conflict with the Hezbollah-led opposition.
“This decision is first of all a declaration of war and the launching of war by the government… against the resistance and its weapons for the benefit of America and Israel,” Nasrallah told a news conference in reference to the government’s move.
He described the network as a vital part of the military structure of the group, which fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006.
“The communications network is the significant part of the weapons of the resistance,” Nasrallah said via video link. “I had said that we will cut the hand that targets the weapons of the resistance… Today is the day to fulfil this decision.”
Street confrontations this week have aggravated the country’s worst internal crisis since the 1975-90 civil war and exacerbated sectarian tension between Sunnis loyal to the government and Shi’ites who support the opposition.
The army said the situation threatened its unity. “The continuation of the situation … harms the unity of the military establishment,” the army said in a statement.
The fragmentation of the army along sectarian lines in 1976 was a key moment in Lebanon’s total collapse into militia rule.
Pro-government activists blocked a highway linking Beirut to the mainly Shi’ite south with burning tires and mounds of earth and set up a barricade on the main road to the border with Syria — a strong backer of Hezbollah.
“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 has led a political campaign 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 violence quickly took on a sectarian tone with clashes in mixed Shi’ite and Sunni neighborhoods. At least 10 people were wounded.
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.
Nasrallah also rejected the government’s decision to sack the chief of the airport’s security and said defiantly that the officer would remain in 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 paralyzed much of the government and left Lebanon without a president for five months.