Hezbollah fighters in Beirut melt away
Hezbollah gunmen melted off the streets of Beirut Saturday, heeding an army call to pull the fighters out after the Shiite militants demonstrated their military might in a power struggle with the U.S.-backed government, the AP reported.
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, in his first public statement since sectarian clashes erupted on Wednesday, said Lebanon can no longer tolerate Hezbollah having weapons. He called on the army to restore law and order and remove gunmen from the streets.
Despite his tough talk, Saniora made a key concession to the Hezbollah-led opposition that would effectively shelve the two government decisions that sparked the fighting.
Muslim West Beirut was mostly calm a day after Hezbollah and its allies seized control of neighborhoods from Sunnis loyal to the government. Most Hezbollah gunmen had pulled out, leaving small bands of their Shiite Amal allies to patrol the streets.
While tensions in the capital appeared to be defusing, violence spread and intensified in other parts of the country.
At least 12 people were killed and 20 wounded when pro- and anti-government groups fought in a remote region of northern Lebanon, Lebanese security and hospital officials said. It was the heaviest toll for a single clash since fighting began.
At least 37 people have been killed in four days of clashes - the worst sectarian violence since Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.
The violence grew out of a political standoff between the opposition, which pulled out of the Cabinet 17 months ago demanding veto power over government decisions. The deadlock has prevented parliament from electing a president, leaving the country without a head of state since November.
The political standoff turned into clashes after the government confronted Hezbollah earlier this week. It said it would sack the chief of airport security for alleged ties to Hezbollah and declared the group's private telephone network illegal and a threat to state security.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Thursday the decisions amounted to a declaration of war and he demanded they be revoked. His Shiite forces then overran large swaths of West Beirut.
The rout was a blow for Washington, which has long considered Hezbollah a terrorist group and condemns its ties to Syria and Iran. The Bush administration has been a strong supporter of Saniora's government and its army for the last three years.
The show of force added to jitters in the Middle East and the West over Iran's growing influence and its intentions in the region.