Hezbollah steps up pressure on rivals

5-day clash leaves 53 dead in Lebanon

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Laila Bassam
Reuters / May 12, 2008

BEIRUT - Hezbollah gunmen battled supporters of the government yesterday on the fifth day of a campaign by the Iranian-backed group that has dealt a severe blow to Washington's allies in Lebanon.

The fighting in Aley, a town in the mountains overlooking the capital, and nearby villages killed at least eight people.

Hezbollah, which is also backed by Syria, and its allies have in recent days routed progovernment gunmen in Beirut in Lebanon's worst civil strife since the 1975-1990 civil war.

The drive by Hezbollah to take control of strategic locations has increased pressure on the governing coalition, supported by the United States and Saudi Arabia, to accept the opposition's terms for ending 18 months of political conflict.

Hezbollah and allied Druze fighters took control of several villages in the Aley area yesterday, security sources said.

Explosions and gunfire echoed across the pine-covered hills.

The clashes brought the death toll in five days of fighting across Lebanon to 53.

At least 150 have been wounded.

Fighting eased, and the army began to deploy after Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose supporters were fighting Hezbollah, asked a rival Druze leader allied to the Shi'ite group to mediate an end to the fighting.

The battles stopped for several hours, but the two sides clashed again in Mount Barook to the southeast shortly before midnight. Barook separates the Druze heartland of Shouf from the mainly Shi'ite southern end of the Bekaa Valley.

"I tell my supporters that civil peace, coexistence, and stopping war and destruction are more important than any other consideration," Jumblatt, a pillar of the US-backed governing coalition, said in an appeal on LBC television.

Jumblatt's call for his Druze rival Talal Arsalan to mediate was a sign of how big a blow the coalition has been dealt by Hezbollah, a political group with a powerful guerrilla army.

The Druze, an offshoot of Islam, make up less than 10 percent of Lebanon's population but have traditionally wielded disproportionately large influence.

Arab League foreign ministers agreed at an emergency meeting in Cairo to send a mission to Beirut to help mediate an end to the Lebanese crisis, led by the Qatari prime minister.

"We want to rescue Lebanon," Arab League chief Amr Moussa said at a press conference. He said the ministers condemned the use of violence to achieve political goals.

Lebanon's political stalemate turned violent Wednesday after the government decided to try to move against a military communications network operated by Hezbollah, and fired the head of security at Beirut airport, who is close to the group.

Hezbollah called the move a declaration of war, saying the network had played a key role in its war with Israel in 2006.

Hezbollah seized much of west Beirut on Friday, then pulled back to let the army take control of areas they had captured after the army overturned the government's decisions.

However, Hezbollah said it would maintain a campaign of civil disobedience until all its demands were met.

In particular, it wants explicit recognition that it can keep its weapons for use against Israel.

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