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Fresh violence in Lebanon kills 11 PDF Print E-mail
Sunday, 11 May 2008

BEIRUT (AFP) - Violence raged in Lebanon for a fourth straight day leaving 11 people dead on Saturday as tension gripped the country after Hezbollah seized control of west Beirut in what the Western-backed coalition branded an armed coup.

The death toll from the fighting between mainly Sunni supporters of the ruling bloc and Shiite members of the opposition hit 29, prompting Prime Minister Fuad Siniora to announce an address to the nation as Lebanon teetered dangerously close to a new civil war.

Five people were killed in north Lebanon in clashes between the rival supporters, a security official told AFP.

In the capital, six people were killed when gunmen opened fire at the funeral procession of a Sunni civilian killed in earlier clashes.
"We have six dead and 20 injured, six of them in critical condition," an official at Beirut's Makassed hospital said.

The procession was for Mohamed Shamaa, 24, who was killed in the Corniche al-Mazraa area on Thursday night.

Hundreds of residents of Tareek al-Jadidah, where the funeral procession was taking place, gathered at the cemetery as the army took up position nearby with gunmen still in the area, an AFP correspondent witnessed.

An uneasy calm settled over most of west Beirut as people ventured out in the affected areas and cleaning crews swept away the debris.

Few armed elements could be seen on the streets and the army was out in force manning roadblocks. However, the main road leading to the airport remained blocked for a fourth straight day and there were no scheduled incoming or outgoing flights.

Foreigners continued to leave the country by road to Syria, with Turkey and Kuwait evacuating their citizens.

The unrest led to urgent international appeals for calm as Arab foreign ministers prepared to hold an emergency meeting on the crisis on Sunday amid fears among Sunni governments of an increase in the influence in Lebanon of Shiite Iran.

Washington has blasted the power grab by Hezbollah and also pointed the finger at Iran and Syria for the unrest, saying they must be held to account.

"The United States is consulting with other governments in the region and with the UN Security Council about measures that must be taken to hold those responsible for the violence in Beirut accountable," the White House said.

The fighting was sparked by the government's decision to probe a communication network set up by Hezbollah and to sack the head of airport security over his alleged links with the militant group.

The violence that ensued between Sunni and Shiite militants marked a turning point in the 18-month political crisis that has virtually paralysed the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and left the country with no president.

"Will Siniora go back on his decisions or will he resign and resolve the country's crisis?" asked the opposition newspaper Ad-Diyar.

"Political impasse and insecurity -- Hezbollah's pyrrhic victory," said the pro-government L'Orient Le Jour.

Both sides appeared unwilling to give any further ground, with the opposition insisting that the roadblocks that have paralysed west Beirut and the airport road would remain until the government meets its demands.

"We are not carrying out a coup -- all of this is related to the government's decisions," an opposition official told AFP. "We are offering partnership... and they want to monopolise power and limit our share."

But Youth and Sports Minister Ahmed Fatfat ruled out any chance of the government going back on its decision to probe the communications network that Hezbollah insists is essential to its defences against Israel.

"It would be easier for the government to resign than to revoke its decision," Fatfat told AFP.

Lebanon's long-running political standoff, which first erupted in November 2006 when six pro-Syrian ministers quit the cabinet, has left it without a president since November, when Damascus protege Emile Lahoud stepped down at the end of his term of office.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said the unrest was a purely "internal affair" but called for dialogue.

Lebanon's crippling political divide is widely seen as an extension of the confrontation pitting the United States and its Arab allies against Syria and Iran.

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