Beirut under militia fire

Night-time clashes erupted across Lebanon's capital Thursday, turning the streets of Beirut into a battle between the opposition-led Hezbollah and followers of the ruling majority, dpa reported.

The violence came after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed to use weapons to defend his party's communications system, calling a government decision to launch a probe into his group's communication network "a declaration of war."

The government on Tuesday had said it was launching a probe into a private telephone network set up by Hezbollah, and accused the group of placing surveillance cameras around the airport to monitor the comings and goings of pro-government politicians.

Masked gunmen filled the streets of Beirut on Thursday and exchanged rocket-propelled grenade and machinegun fire.

At least three people were killed and 10 others wounded in the clashes.

Many Beirut residents were spending their night in shelters, and ambulance sirens echoed throughout the city transferring the dead and the wounded to hospitals.

A group of journalists, including this correspondent, were caught in militia fire and the Lebanese army managed to evacuate them in a tank.

Riding inside the tank, machinegun fire could be clearly heard along with insults being hurled between militiamen in the streets.

An army officer told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa inside the tank that the streets "are now uncontrollable now."

Gunmen had set up their own checkpoints in the streets and asked journalists for their identities and for which foreign media they were working.

The clashes errupted after a rare press conference via video link with Nasrallah blasting the government probe of his group's communications network, calling the system a "weapon" vital for Hezbollah's resistance and the security of the party's leaders.

"The hand that extends to touch the network would be chopped off," Nasrallah threatened.

Nasrallah also called the Western-backed government of Lebanon's Premier Fouad Seniora as a "gang" and described anti-Syrian Druze leader Walid Jumblatt of "being the prime minister of Lebanon and not Premier Fouad Seniora."

Nasrallah warned that Lebanon's long-running political crisis had "entered a new phase" after a government crackdown on activities by his Shiite militant group.

"Following the decision taken by the government, we have entered a new phase," Nasrallah said. " Lebanon following this cabinet meeting is no longer the Lebanon prior to that date."

The night time clashes prompted the head of the ruling majority, Saad Hariri to hold a press conference, urging Hezbollah to lift Beirut's "siege."

"I urge you to lift the siege on Beirut and to withdraw your armed militants," Hariri said.

Of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites, Sunni politician Hariri said "this is a crime that must stop immediately."

Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun also called for an immediate dialogue to end the violence.

"The (western-backed) government is responsible for the deterioration," said Aoun, who is close to Hezbollah.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, called for calm, and said "enough is enough."

The latest round of tensions was sparked by the government's decision earlier this week to confront Hezbollah by replacing the Beirut airport security chief for alleged ties to the Shiite group.

Supporters of the Hezbollah-led opposition blocked roads in the capital Wednesday to enforce a strike called by labour unions protesting the government's economic policies and demanding pay raises.

The strike quickly escalated into street confrontations between supporters of the rival camps. About a dozen people were injured, mostly by stones, but no deaths were reported.

On Thursday, the violence spread outside the capital. Sunnis and Shiites exchanged gunfire in the village of Saadnayel in the eastern Bekaa Valley. Four people were injured, said security officials.

At least one person was killed and 10 others were wounded during the daytime clashes.

Lebanon is passing through its worst crisis, since the country's 15-year civil war ended in 1990. The political division 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.

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