Hezbollah fighters pressure Lebanon rivals

Lebanon's factional violence raged on in the mountains around Beirut on Sunday, as gunmen from the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement battled Druze allies of a government which is supported by Washington, Reuters reported.

The fighting in Aley, a town in the mountains overlooking the capital, and nearby villages killed at least eight people.

Hezbollah, which is also backed by Syria, and its allies have in recent days routed pro-government gunmen in Beirut in Lebanon's worst civil strife since the 1975-1990 civil war.

The campaign led by Hezbollah has increased pressure on the governing coalition, supported by the United States and Saudi Arabia, to accept the opposition's terms for ending 18 months of political conflict.

Hezbollah and allied Druze fighters took control of several villages in the Aley area on Sunday, security sources said. Explosions and gunfire echoed across the pine-covered hills.

The clashes brought the death toll in five days of fighting across Lebanon to 53. At least 150 have been wounded.

Fighting eased and the army began to deploy after Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose supporters were fighting Hezbollah, asked a rival Druze leader allied to the Shi'ite group to mediate an end to the fighting.

"I tell my supporters that civil peace, coexistence and stopping war and destruction are more important than any other consideration," Jumblatt, a pillar of the U.S.-backed governing coalition, said in an appeal on LBC television.

Jumblatt's call for rival Druze leader Talal Arsalan to mediate was a sign of how big a blow the coalition has been dealt by Hezbollah, a political group with a powerful guerrilla army.

The clashes followed allegations by Hezbollah on Saturday that Jumblatt loyalists killed two of its members. It also held Jumblatt responsible for the safe return of a third member who was missing.

The Druze are an offshoot of Islam, comprising less than 10 percent of Lebanon's population. Their influence in Lebanon has traditionally been greater than their size would indicate.

GOVERNMENT MOVE

The Arab League, which held an emergency session on Sunday, said it would send a delegation headed by Secretary-General Amr Moussa and the prime minister of Qatar to Beirut immediately to try to mediate an end to the fighting.

Lebanon's political stalemate turned violent on Wednesday after the government decided to move against a military communications network operated by Hezbollah and sacked the head of security at Beirut airport, who is close to the group.

Hezbollah called the move a declaration of war, saying the network had played a crucial role in its 34-day war with Israel in 2006.

Hezbollah seized much of west Beirut on Friday after its fighters routed supporters of the ruling coalition. Lebanese troops patrolled Beirut on Sunday after the group's fighters pulled back from areas they had taken.

Hezbollah agreed to withdraw its forces from Beirut after the Lebanese army overturned the government decisions. However, the opposition said it would maintain a campaign of civil disobedience until all its demands were met.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said his cabinet would meet soon to decide on Hezbollah's demand and the army's request that the government annul the decisions altogether.

In Beirut, hundreds of soldiers backed by armoured vehicles set up roadblocks and took up positions on the streets of the mainly Muslim part of the capital.

There were no gunmen in sight but youths maintained barricades on some crucial roads, ensuring Beirut's air and sea ports remained closed.

The United States, which considers Hezbollah a terrorist group, a threat to Israel and a weapon in the hands of its arch-foe Iran, had welcomed the end of the Beirut fighting.

Iran blamed the United States and Israel for the escalation in Lebanon and said it backed an internal solution to the political deadlock.

The governing coalition accuses Hezbollah of seeking to restore the influence of neighbouring Syria, which was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in 2005.

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