BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese troops patrolled Beirut on Sunday after Hezbollah fighters pulled back from areas they had seized in gun battles with supporters of the U.S.-backed government.
But fighting broke out overnight in Tripoli between pro- and anti-government gunmen. Security sources said at least two people were killed and five were wounded in the clashes in Lebanon’s second largest city.
Police put the toll of five days of fighting in Beirut and elsewhere at 44 dead and 128 wounded.
Hundreds of soldiers backed by armored vehicles set up roadblocks and took up positions on the streets of the mainly Muslim part of the capital.
There were no gunmen in sight but youths maintained barricades on some crucial roads, ensuring Beirut’s air and sea ports remained closed.
The Hezbollah-led opposition said it would maintain a campaign of “civil disobedience” until all its demands were met.
Hezbollah, a political group backed by Iran and Syria and which has a guerrilla army, said on Saturday it was ending its armed presence in Beirut after the army overturned government decisions against it.
While tension eased slightly in Beirut, there was little progress in efforts to resolve the political disputes that have plunged Lebanon into its worst crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.
“At the level of what caused the immediate crisis, we are half way towards defusing it,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “We seem to be over that immediate hump,” he said, but no solution to the wider crisis was in sight.
Hezbollah took over much of west Beirut on Friday after its fighters routed supporters of the anti-Syrian ruling coalition.
The fighting started on Wednesday after the government said it was taking action against Hezbollah’s military communications network and sacked the head of security at Beirut airport, who is close to the group.
Hezbollah called the move against its communications a declaration of war, saying the network had played a crucial role in its 34-day war with Israel in 2006.
The United States, which considers Hezbollah a terrorist group, a threat to Israel and a weapon in the hands of its arch-foe Iran, welcomed the end of the fighting.
“We hope to see that trend continue and Hezbollah stop its destabilizing efforts there,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters on Saturday.
Iran blamed Washington and said it backed an internal solution to the political deadlock in Beirut.
“The United States is directly interfering in Lebanon’s internal affairs and at the same time the U.S. is blaming others, accusing others of interfering in Lebanon,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said.
Lebanon has been in political deadlock for 18 months over opposition demands for a greater say in government.
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, whose legitimacy is disputed by the opposition, on Saturday handed responsibility for the moves against Hezbollah to the army, which has sought to avoid conflict with either side.
The army said it would handle the issue of the communications network in a way “that would not harm public interest and the security of the resistance.” It also said it was reinstating the head of airport security.
The army is seen as a neutral player in the crisis.
Much of the fighting has been between supporters of Sunni Muslim Saad al-Hariri, leader of the governing coalition, and Shi’ite gunmen loyal to the opposition.
Hariri’s supporters still control areas in the north of the country where they have taken over offices belonging to opposition groups, and have kept a key crossing point with Syria shut.
Hariri is a son of the late Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, whose assassination three years ago forced Syria to withdraw troops from Lebanon.
The governing coalition accuses Hezbollah of seeking to restore Syria’s influence. The group’s show of military might in Beirut has also alarmed the West and its Sunni Arab allies who fear Iran’s growing influence in the region.