BEIRUT (Reuters) - Supporters of Lebanon’s U.S.-backed government fought battles in Beirut on Wednesday with gunmen loyal to the Hezbollah-led opposition, escalating the worst internal crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.
Followers of the Iran-backed Hezbollah paralyzed the capital and cut routes to its sea and air ports by blocking roads with blazing tires, old cars, heaps of earth and concrete blocks.
An opposition source said the protest campaign would continue until the government rescinded decisions affecting Hezbollah, including a move to take steps against a telecommunications network operated by the group.
Hezbollah, a Shi’ite Muslim group backed by Syria and Iran, has led a 17-month-long political campaign against Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s anti-Syrian cabinet. Friction has already led to bouts of lethal violence.
Security sources said pro-government supporters exchanged assault rifle and grenade fire with Hezbollah sympathizers in the Beirut neighborhoods of Noueiri, Ras al Nabae and Wata al-Musaitbeh. Some 10 people were wounded in the violence.
Opposition gunmen took over an office of the Future political group led by Saad al-Hariri, leader of the governing coalition, Lebanon’s most influential Sunni politician and a close ally of Saudi Arabia.
Youths loyal to the rival sides pelted each other with stones in Mazraa, one of the Beirut districts where sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites have been high.
The army, mostly regarded as neutral during the crisis, deployed in force but did not attempt to remove the barricades.
Siniora told Future News television that his government was considering declaring a state of emergency and a curfew. “This issue is the subject of discussions and I won’t speak about anything until it becomes a reality,” he said.
Sunni Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rachid Kabbani denounced the actions of “outlawed armed gangs” in Beirut and said Hezbollah had now transformed itself from a resistance movement to an armed force to occupy Beirut.
“The Sunni Muslims in Lebanon are fed up,” he said in a televised address to the Lebanese. “I appeal to the leadership of Hezbollah from my national and religious position to take the initiative and withdraw the gunmen from Beirut.”
Tension between the government and Hezbollah escalated sharply on Tuesday when the cabinet said the group’s communication network was “an attack on the sovereignty of the state”. Hezbollah said it was part of its security apparatus and played a major role in its war with Israel in 2006.
Hezbollah was also infuriated by government allegations it was spying on the airport and by the cabinet’s decision to remove the head of airport security, a figure close to the opposition, from his post.
Provoked by the government’s moves, Hezbollah was “flexing its muscles” in the streets, said Oussama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.
“The heat has been turned up. But it’s probably not going to unfold into war. A confrontation is not winnable,” he said.
“Things could get very ugly, but I don’t think they will spread out of hand,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “Everyone is armed and angry.”
Hezbollah 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.
Hezbollah has deemed Siniora’s cabinet illegitimate since its Shi’ite ministers resigned in 2006. The governing coalition has refused to yield to the opposition’s demand for effective veto power in cabinet. The crisis has paralyzed much of government and left Lebanon without a president for five months.
Air traffic was suspended for six hours on Wednesday because of a strike by staff taking part in labor union action to demand more pay. The opposition had urged its supporters to back the strike.
Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki, Laila Bassam and Yara Bayoumy; editing by Philippa Fletcher