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Army deploys in Tripoli as Beirut takeover ends PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 12 May 2008

Lebanese soldiers deployed in the northern city of Tripoli on Sunday after fierce battles between rival clans as the Hezbollah-led opposition handed over control of west Beirut to the army, reports AFP.

The Arab League was set to hold emergency talks in Egypt on the crisis amid regional Sunni Muslim fears about Shiite Iran's influence in divided Lebanon.

A security official said fierce battles erupted overnight in Tripoli between Sunni supporters of the Western-backed government and members of an Alawite sect loyal to Hezbollah, which is backed by both Syria and Iran.

One woman was killed and at least five people were wounded as thousands fled the clashes. The fighting eased by mid-morning and the army was able to enter the affected areas.

Many homes and businesses in districts where the battles raged were torched, shop windows were broken and bullet casings littered the streets, AFP correspondents reported.

Residents of Tripoli could hear heavy machine gun fire and the thump of exploding rocket-propelled grenades throughout the night.

The firefights focused on the densely populated Bab al-Tebbaneh, Kobbeh and Jabal Mohsen neighbourhoods on the northern edge of the coastal city.

Bab al-Tebbaneh and Kobbeh are Sunni districts while Jabal Mohsen is mainly Alawite.

Alawites are a secretive offshoot of Shiite Islam who revere Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed.

Pro-government demonstrators on Saturday burned office of the pro-Syrian Baath Party in Tripoli and fierce clashes in the Akkar region farther north left 14 people dead.

The overnight battle in the north came despite a return to an uneasy calm in the capital Beirut, where four days of fierce sectarian fighting pitted mainly Sunni supporters of the ruling bloc against Shiite opposition militias.

The fighters appeared to have vanished from the streets of the capital early on Sunday, but some barricades put up by the militants remained and the airport road was shut for the fifth straight day.

The Shiite opposition announced on Saturday it was ending its takeover of large swathes of west Beirut after the army revoked government measures aimed at curbing the group.

"The opposition welcomes the army's decision and will proceed with the withdrawal of all its armed elements so that control of the capital is handed over to the military," an opposition statement said.

The army earlier said it was overturning a government decision to reassign the head of Beirut airport security and to probe a Hezbollah communications network -- measures that sparked the unrest.

Lawmaker Ali Hassan Khalil of Hezbollah's Shiite ally Amal said the opposition would still keep up its campaign of civil disobedience against the government, however.

The White House welcomed the lessening of violence in Beirut but warned that "our concerns regarding Hezbollah are unchanged."

"They continue to be a destabilising force there with the backing of their supporters, Iran and Syria," US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

The takeover of west Beirut was a dramatic display of Hezbollah's military might and capacity to impose its will.

In a television address to the nation embattled Prime Minister Fuad Siniora accused the group, which waged a 34-day war with Israel in the summer of 2006, of staging an armed coup and urged the army to step in and restore order.

He said Hezbollah's weapons could no longer be considered to be legitimately held because they had been turned against the Lebanese themselves.

Siniora urged all Lebanese to stand for a minute of silence at noon (0900 GMT) on Sunday in remembrance of victims of the unrest and to express their rejection of the violence.

Meanwhile foreigners continued to leave Lebanon by road to Syria on Sunday, although the eastern border crossing of Masnaa was still blocked by pro-government supporters.

An official at Beirut's Rafiq Hariri International Airport, which has been virtually shut down by the unrest, said no incoming or outgoing flights were scheduled for Sunday.

In a sign of increased regional tension Israeli warplanes violated Lebanese airspace in the south of the country on Sunday, a security official told AFP.

Israeli jets regularly overfly Lebanon in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which brought an end to the 2006 war.

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.

The crisis in Lebanon 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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