BEIRUT (AFP) – Fierce gunbattles erupted in Beirut on Thursday after Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah charged that a Lebanese government crackdown on his group’s activities was tantamount to a “declaration of war.”
Lebanon’s long-running political crisis was threatening to spiral dangerously out of control on the second day of clashes between rival factions in the deeply divided country despite urgent appeals for calm.
Supporters of the Western-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition were engaged in shootouts in at least three mixed Sunni and Shiite Muslim neighbourhoods of the capital, with militants using rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, a security official said.
There were no reports of casualties, although armed clashes in other towns earlier left at least eight people wounded.
Nasrallah said his powerful Shiite militant group was ready to use its weapons, in a fiery speech on the second day of anti-government protests which saw supporters of rival factions block roads with burning tyres and force the closure of Lebanon’s international airport.
“The (government) decisions are tantamount to a declaration of war and the start of a war… on behalf of the United States and Israel,” Nasrallah charged at a rare press conference via video link.
The government on Tuesday launched a probe into a private communications network run by Hezbollah, which is seen in the West as a terrorist outfit and which critics say has become a “state within a state” in Lebanon.
“Our answer to this decision is this,” Nasrallah said. “We have the right to confront he who starts a war with us by defending our rights and our weapons.” He said Hezbollah was ready for dialogue but demanded that the government rescind its measures.
“We have not used our weapons inside the country but we will use them to defend our arsenal.”
The latest unrest in Lebanon, engulfed in its worst crisis since the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990, erupted on Wednesday during a general strike over price increases and wage demands.
“If this situation continues, everyone will lose and this will affect the unity of the military,” the army command warned.
As the crisis escalated, UN Middle East envoy Terje Roed Larsen told the Security Council that Hezbollah’s separate paramilitary infrastructure “constitutes a threat to regional peace and security.”
Israel, which fought a devastating war with Hezbollah in 2006, said it had no comment on the latest events in its northern neighbour, with foreign affairs spokesman Arye Mekel bluntly stating: “It’s none of our business.”
Armed men, some hooded, were seen in several mixed Sunni and Shiite neighbourhoods of Beirut, where troops and riot police were out inouspread and many schools and businesses remained shut for a second day.
Protesters burned tyres and lit fires along the airport road, which remained blocked by large mounds of earth dumped by Hezbollah supporters, while government loyalists set up road blocks and set tyres ablaze along the main highway to Syria and between Beirut and the southern coastal city of Sidon.
Newspapers drew parallels with the lead-up to the civil war while the growing tension brought expressions of support for Prime Minister Fuad Siniora from key Arab powers Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which warned Hezbollah against any steps that might worsen the situation.
Lebanon’s political crisis has left the country without a president since November, when pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud stepped down at the end of his mandate with no elected successor.
While the rival factions have agreed to the election of army chief Michel Sleiman, they disagree on the make-up of the new cabinet and so far 18 sessions of parliament to choose a president have been cancelled.
Hezbollah’s ally Amal warned that the situation could get out of hand.
“It is clear the majority is seeking an escalation and wants to push the country toward a civil war,” an official told AFP. “What we are trying to do is calm down the situation.”
An airport official said all flights had been cancelled until Thursday afternoon and it was unclear whether traffic would resume later.
As-Safir newspaper, close to the opposition, said the situation was a “stark reminder for the Lebanese of the dark days of the civil war.”
“The two camps have crossed all the red lines and are heading toward an armed confrontation,” added Al-Akhbar, also close to the opposition.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit repeated Cairo’s support for Siniora and implicitly blamed the opposition for the crisis.
“The party that is pushing for confrontation and which persists along this path with disregard for civil peace will surely bear the historic responsibility for its actions,” he reportedly told Lebanese majority leader Saad Hariri.
Saudi Arabia also warned those behind the latest incidents to “reconsider their position, and to realise that leading Lebanon towards turmoil will not bring victory to any party except extremist external forces.”