Beirut: Hizbullah takes control of Sunni neighborhoods
Hizbullah gunmen seized nearly all of the Lebanese capital's Muslim part from Sunni foes loyal to the government on Friday. At least 11 people have been killed and more than 20 hurt in three days of street clashes in West Beirut between the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizbullah fighters and gunmen loyal to the government, security officials said.
The satellite TV station affiliated with the party of Lebanon's top Sunni lawmaker, Saad Hariri, was forced off the air. Gunmen set the offices of the party's newspaper, Al-Mustaqbal, on fire in the coastal neighborhood of Ramlet el-Bayda.
According to the AP, Hariri and Druse leader Walid Jumblatt were besieged in their West Beirut residences. Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and several ministers holed up in Saniora's downtown office surrounded by troops and police.
Gunmen loyal to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party set ablaze a two-story building where Hariri's Future TV has its archives in the western neighborhood of Rawche, some 100 yards from the Saudi embassy. The secular pro-Syrian group, a longtime ally of Hizbullah, has dozens of its own gunmen in the streets.
A rocket-propelled grenade hit the fence of Hariri's heavily protected residence, security officials said. Pro-government majority officials held an emergency meeting in a mountain town in the Christian heartland northeast of Beirut, according to LBC TV, a pro-government Christian station.
"Even if Hizbullah's militia took everything we remain the constitutional authority," Cabinet Minister Ahmed Fatfat told Al-Arabiya TV from Saniora's compound. The unrest shut down Lebanon's international airport and barricades set up by both side closed major highways. The seaport also was closed, leaving one land route to Syria as Lebanon's only link to the outside world.
Arab foreign ministers called an emergency meeting for Sunday in the Egyptian capital Cairo to discuss the crisis, Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said. About 100 Hizbullah gunmen marched down Hamra Street, a commercial strip in a mainly Sunni area of Beirut. They took up positions in corners and sidewalks and stopped the few cars braving the empty streets to search their trunks.
On nearby streets, dozens of fighters from another Shiite party appeared, some wearing masks and carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Lebanon's army, which has stayed out of the sectarian political squabbling that has paralyzed the country for more than a year, did not intervene in the clashes, which had largely tapered off into sporadic gunfire by early afternoon.
Troops then started taking up positions in some Sunni neighborhoods abandoned by the pro-government groups. A senior security official said the army would soon take over the Sunnis' last stronghold of Tarik Jadideh.
In some cases, Hizbullah handed over newly won positions to Lebanese troops.