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World News

Gunmen clash in Tripoli, instability grips Lebanon

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Pro-government Sunni Muslim gunmen fought militiamen allied to Hezbollah in the northern city of Tripoli on Monday, in further violence that has already dismantled the balance of power in Lebanon.

Smoke rises from Alley area during clashes between Hezbollah gunmen and Druze pro-government fighters in Mount Lebanon May 11, 2008. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

The upheaval, which began when Hezbollah and its allies overran the strongholds of their Sunni political foes in Beirut last week, has recalled memories of the 1975-90 civil war.

Six people were wounded in sporadic gun battles between Sunni fighters in Tripoli’s Bab Tebbaneh area and pro-Hezbollah Alawites in neighbouring Jebel Mohsen, security sources said.

Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas and their pro-Syrian allies have swept through Beirut and hills to the east in a series of dramatic victories since May 7, defeating loyalists of the U.S.-backed government before handing their conquests to the Lebanese army, which has stayed out of the fighting.

At least 36 people were killed on Sunday in fighting between Hezbollah and its pro-government Druze opponents east of Beirut, bringing the overall toll to 81 dead and about 250 wounded.

Hezbollah’s success has dealt a severe blow to the ruling Sunni-led coalition and its main patron, the United States, which has cast Lebanon as a fragile democracy endangered by the ambitions of Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian backers.

“We are very disappointed in what’s been happening, very concerned by it, and the president you can bet is going to be talking about this while he’s on his trip,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, referring to this week’s visit to the Middle East by U.S. President George W. Bush.

Bush has not changed his plans to meet Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in Egypt on Sunday, Perino said.

“We believe that the Lebanese deserve to have the democracy that they asked for and the one that they voted for,” she added.

Hezbollah and its allies fought the 2005 parliamentary poll in an electoral alliance with the ruling coalition parties, although their agreement later broke down in acrimony.

The destroyer USS Cole passed through the Suez Canal to the eastern Mediterranean on Sunday. The ship deployed off Lebanon in February as a show of support to Siniora’s government.

A precarious calm prevailed in Beirut, where politicians prepared to meet Arab League mediators.

“What has been happening is negotiations by fire,” a political source said. “Now everyone is waiting for the Arab committee to come for the political negotiations to start.”

Britain and Germany issued statements backing the Arab League mediation and endorsing Siniora’s government.

So far such Western and Saudi support has done nothing to deter Hezbollah from exposing the military weakness of its foes, such as Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri and Druze chief Walid Jumblatt, whose mountain fiefdom was attacked on Sunday.

One source said 14 Hezbollah fighters were among the dead in those battles. Hezbollah-led forces overran several posts held by Jumblatt’s gunmen in the Aley district east of Beirut before the Druze leader agreed to hand them over to the army.

Swallowing his pride, Jumblatt had authorised Talal Arsalan, a rival Syrian-backed Druze leader, to mediate with Hezbollah.

Arsalan said Jumblatt’s men had handed over most of their offices and strongholds in Aley to the army, but said he was still waiting for them to turn in heavy weapons and arms depots.

DEFIANT

While Hariri, Jumblatt and their Christian allies have retracted the moves that sparked Hezbollah’s ferocious reaction -- outlawing its communications network and sacking the airport security chief -- they have yet to concede political ground.

For 18 months, the government has resisted opposition demands for veto rights in cabinet, although Hezbollah has now shown it has the military muscle to veto decisions it dislikes.

The political turmoil has paralysed state institutions and left Lebanon without a president since November.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters that the situation was “very fragile” and militias had to stop using force and allow for the election of a president.

“The real goal must be here to get a president elected in Lebanon. There is, of course, a consensus candidate. All of those who are interfering with his election should step aside and let it take place,” said Rice.

Lebanese officials said they expected a Qatari-led Arab mission, formed at an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on Sunday, to arrive in Beirut on Wednesday.

The Arab mediators will try to quell the violence and tackle the political crisis by securing the election of army commander General Michel Suleiman as president, the officials said.

Both sides had agreed on Suleiman as president but could not strike a deal over a new government and a law for next year’s parliamentary election. Hezbollah’s grab for strategic locations has increased pressure on the government to accept its terms.

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