Hizbullah to withdraw its gunmen

Announcement follows army request; military plans to monitor group's communications network.

lebanon violence 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
lebanon violence 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Hizbullah said on Saturday it was withdrawing its gunmen from Beirut neighborhoods seized in clashes, after the army ordered its troops to establish security and called on fighters to clear the streets. But while tensions in the capital appeared to be lessening, violence spread to other parts of the country. At least 12 people were killed and 20 were wounded when pro- and anti-government groups fought in Halba, in a remote northern region, Lebanese security and hospital officials said. It was the heaviest toll for a single clash since sectarian fighting began on Wednesday. At least 37 people have been killed in four days of violence. Hizbullah and its allies seized large swaths of Muslim West Beirut on Friday, demonstrating their military might in a power struggle with the US-backed government. It was the worst sectarian violence since Lebanon's 1975-1990 Civil War. The fighting broke out after the government challenged Hizbullah by declaring its private telephone network illegal and saying it would remove the chief of airport security for suspected ties to the Shi'ite extremist group. Hizbullah's leader Hassan Nasrallah said the decisions amounted to a declaration of war and he demanded they be revoked. His forces then overran Beirut neighborhoods, routing Sunni supporters of the government. Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, in his first public statement since the violence erupted, said Lebanon could no longer tolerate Hizbullah having weapons. He called on the army to restore law and order and remove gunmen from the streets. He also accused Hizbullah of staging a coup and besieging the capital. The dream of democracy in Lebanon has been dealt "a poisonous stab by the armed coup carried out by Hizbullah and its allies," he said. After Saniora's speech, the army called for gunmen to withdraw from the streets of Beirut and reopen blocked roads. It ordered army units "to continue to take measures on the ground to establish security and spread state authority and arrest the violators." Saniora said he would leave it up to the army to resolve the fight over the airport security chief and the Hizbullah telephone network. The army offered Hizbullah a compromise: It said the airport security chief would not be sacked and recommended to the government that it revoke the decision to declare the communications network illegal. The army has largely stayed out of the fighting, fearing its forces could break apart on sectarian lines as they did during the civil war. The army command is respected by Hizbullah, and most of its enlisted men are Sh'ites. An opposition statement said its forces would withdraw all their gunmen from Beirut in compliance with the army's request. But it said a "civil disobedience" campaign would continue until its demands were met. The statement did not say whether Hizbullah would remove roadblocks around Beirut, including one that has cut off access to the airport since Wednesday. West Beirut appeared mostly calm a day after Hizbullah and its allies seized large parts of the area. Most Hizbullah gunmen had pulled out, leaving small bands of their Shi'ite Amal allies to patrol the streets. In Halba, however, violence appeared to be intensifying. Fighters loyal to Sunni parliament majority leader Saad Hariri and the government battled the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, a secular pro-Syrian group allied with Hizbullah. The pro-government fighters stormed the office of the party and set it ablaze after the gun battle. Nine of the dead were from the opposition and three were government loyalists, the security officials said. In a mountain town east of Beirut, Hizbullah accused a pro-government Druse group of kidnapping three of its members and killing two of them. A statement held Druse leader Walid Jumblatt personally responsible for the safety of the third man. Eight people were killed near Aley, 17 km. from Beirut, late Friday in clashes between government supporters and opponents. Another civilian died in the clashes in the southern city of Sidon. Earlier Saturday in Tarik Jadideh, a Sunni neighborhood of Beirut, a Shi'ite shop owner opened fire on Sunnis in a funeral procession as they passed his store chanting insults at Shi'ite Hizbullah leaders. He killed two and wounded six, police and witnesses said. Troops captured the gunman. After the attack, angry people stormed the alleged gunman's shop and set it ablaze. They also attacked another shop with stones, shattering its glass. Tarik Jadideh is a stronghold of Sunni supporters of Hariri, the parliamentary majority leader and son of assassinated former premier Rafik Hariri. Elsewhere in the capital, residents ventured out in small numbers to streets held by both Lebanese troops and lingering bands of Shi'ite gunmen. In the Zaidaniyeh neighborhood, which saw heavy fighting earlier in the week, residents were cleaning up and assessing the damage. Despite a gaping hole in the front of his grocery story where it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, Talal Mroueh was open for business. "Many people are stocking up on food today and so I'm selling much more than usual," he said, estimating that his shop had suffered $5,000 worth of damage in the violence.•