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Lebanon army mulls force to halt crisis PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 14 May 2008

AFP, BEIRUT  - Lebanon's army, backed by US pledges of support, said it was ready to use force on Tuesday to restore order after six days of deadly sectarian gunbattles that have shaken the nation to the core.

US President George W. Bush, on the eve of a trip to the Middle East, warned Iran and Syria that the international community would not allow Lebanon to fall under foreign domination again and vowed to shore up the Lebanese military.

The fighting, which has left at least 62 people dead and close to 200 wounded, is the worst sectarian unrest since the 1975-1990 civil war and has stoked fears the country was headed for another all-out conflict.

After being ordered not to intervene to protect its neutrality in deeply divided Lebanon, the army said its troops were prepared to resort to force to disarm gunmen and bring an end to the violence between supporters of the Western-backed government and Hezbollah-led opposition fighters.

No major incidents were reported on Tuesday although fierce battles erupted briefly overnight in northern port city of Tripoli. In Beirut, the situation was calm, schools have reopened and traffic was slowly returning to normal although some stores in the west of the capital are still shut.

Several highways remain blocked by Hezbollah-led Shiite protests, including the road to the Lebanon's only international airport which is still shut, and people are trying to leave by road to Syria or by boat to Cyprus.

"The civil disobedience campaign will only end when Prime Minister Fuad Siniora officially rescinds his decisions and when his camp returns to the negotiating table," an official with Hezbollah ally Amal told AFP.

The latest unrest, which dramatically raised the stakes in an 18-month standoff between the ruling majority and the Syrian- and Iranian-backed opposition, erupted after a government crackdown against Hezbollah activities which the powerful militant group said amounted to a declaration of war.

Bush said his administration would help Siniora by strengthening his armed forces and again blamed Iran and Syria for the confrontation.

"I strongly condemn Hezbollah's recent efforts, and those of their foreign sponsors in Tehran and Damascus, to use violence and intimidation to bend the government and people of Lebanon to their will," Bush said in a statement.

"The international community will not allow the Iranian and Syrian regimes, via their proxies, to return Lebanon to foreign domination and control."

Sunni Muslim powerhouse Saudi Arabia also warned Shiite Iran over the crisis, and called on all regional states to stop meddling in Lebanon's affairs.

"Iran's relations with all Arab countries -- if not all Islamic (countries) -- would be affected if Iran was supporting the coup that took place in Lebanon," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said.

Lebanon's leading An-Nahar newspaper said the army decision followed commitments from both camps to rein in their militants pending the outcome of crisis talks with an Arab League delegation due in Lebanon on Wednesday.

"Today's agenda: The army takes hold of the streets... even by force," declared a headline in the As-Safir newspaper, which is close to the opposition.

Last week's sectarian clashes saw Hezbollah gunmen and their allies take over large swathes of majority Sunni areas of the mainly Muslim western sector of the city, action Siniora's government branded a coup.

Hezbollah ended its takeover at the weekend but only after the army reversed a government decision to probe the group's communication network and to reassign the head of airport security over claims he was close to Hezbollah.

Arab foreign ministers held weekend crisis talks in Cairo, an Arab League delegation is due to visit Beirut on Wednesday in a bid to end the fighting.

Hezbollah welcomed the Arab League decision but insisted that the delegation must be neutral. "We ask the Arabs not to favour one party over another," Hezbollah deputy chief Hussein Khalil told a news conference.

The ruling majority said it was willing to negotiate but not under the gun.

The international "Friends of Lebanon" group called for an immediate end to the violence and for a long-delayed presidential election to be held with no pre-conditions.

Lebanon's paralysing political standoff, which erupted in November 2006 when six pro-Syrian ministers quit, has left it without a president since November, when Damascus protege Emile Lahoud's term ended.

A parliament vote scheduled for Tuesday to elect a new president was cancelled because of the latest unrest and a new date of June 10 was set.

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