[News] Opposition forces take control of Beirut

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri May 9 11:56:00 EDT 2008


Human Rights/Development
Opposition forces take control of Beirut
Mona Alami, Electronic Lebanon, 9 May 2008

BEIRUT, 9 May (IPS) - Men clad in black have roamed the streets of 
Beirut since Wednesday, their faces covered with ski masks or dark 
kaffiyeh (checkered scarf), as they wreaked havoc in the large 
avenues leading to the airport or dividing Sunni and Shia areas. As 
darkness loomed over Lebanon, the winds of discord seem to set the 
Lebanese capital ablaze.

Since the assassination of former Sunni prime minister Rafiq Hariri 
14 Feb 2005, allegedly through a Syrian conspiracy, the ruling 
anti-Syrian majority comprised of the Druze Progressive Socialist 
Party (PSP), Christian Lebanese Forces and Kataeb as well as the 
Future movement headed by Saad Hariri, son of slain prime minister 
Hariri, has been in conflict with the Syrian and Iranian backed 
opposition, dominated by Shia Amal and Hizballah movements.

Tension between the two groups has been aggressively building up 
since Saturday 26 April, when French Socialist MP Karim Pakzad was 
detained by Hizballah. In the country to attend a two-day Socialist 
International conference in Beirut, Pakzad was detained and 
interrogated for four hours before being released while touring and 
taking pictures in an area considered the party's stronghold. 
Pakzad's host, Walid Jumblat, head of the PSP and a powerful figure 
in the governing majority, was clearly unhappy with the turn of events.

A week after the kidnapping of Pakzad, Jumblat made earth-shattering 
accusations against Hizballah during a conference. Jumblat claimed 
that the Islamic party had placed cameras around the airport that 
could be used for the killing and kidnapping of Lebanese and foreign 
leaders. He supported his arguments by showing reporters an exchange 
of emails between Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr and army 
intelligence services discussing the discovery of surveillance 
cameras in the airport's vicinity.

Hizballah's sprawling independent telecommunications network has been 
a growing concern for the government majority. While the Party of God 
dismissed the accusations and warned that anyone impeding the network 
would face fierce resistance, another crisis was brewing. The 
opposition-backed General Federation of Labour Unions (GFLU) headed 
by Ghassan Ghosn criticized the government's mismanagement of the 
economic situation and called for a massive protest denouncing the 
high cost of living and demanding an increase in minimum wage.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, the Lebanese cabinet issued a 
statement announcing an increase of the minimum wage to LL 500,000 
(333 USD a month). It was also decided that Brigadier-General Wafic 
Shoucair, who is allegedly closely tied to Hizballah, would be 
removed from his post as head of airport security. The government 
dubbed Hizballah's private communication network as illegal and 
unconstitutional and declared it would refer the issue to the Arab 
League and the international community.

As the sun rose over Beirut Wednesday, hordes of youngsters and men 
in their thirties, responding to the GFLU call, congregated in 
heavily populated areas such as Mazraa and Tayouneh. The divide 
between the opposition and the ruling majority came out on the 
streets of Beirut.

The demonstrations took place mainly in areas loyal to the Hizballah 
and Amal movements. Scores of small motorcycles driven by young men 
in fatigues circulated in the streets, in what seemed like a 
coordinated operation. Roads were blocked with burning tires and 
garbage bins, cars were set on fire, while truckloads of rubble and 
sand were poured on the airport road.

"We are here to protest against the high cost of living. I cannot 
tell you more, our leaders will make an official statement tonight 
[referring to Nabih Berry, head of Shia Amal and Hizballah's Hassan 
Nasrallah]," said a man in his 30s, sitting in the Mar Elias shopping 
areas, a walkie-talkie in hand. A few kilometers away in Mazraa, a 
densely populated Sunni and Shia region, gunfire echoed among the old 
buildings. Hordes of youngsters, hiding on street corners, exchanged 
insults and threw stones at each other. The majority Future Movement 
offices in Noueiri, an area which was the scene of confrontations, 
was hit by a hand-propelled rockets. On the border of the mostly 
Sunni Tariq Jdeideh, men in ski masks with machine-guns were posted 
on street intersections.

"We will thwart any attack prepared by the others," said a masked 
gunman, referring to the Amal and Hizballah demonstrators deployed on 
the streets. While smoke billowed over Beirut, news of armed men 
gathering around the government Serail building began to spread fast.

"We are witnessing the creation of the state of Hizballah at the 
expense of Lebanon's democracy," said Ramy Rayess, PSP spokesman in a 
phone interview with IPS. "The Party of God manipulated the Labour 
Union call [for a demonstration] to attempt a mini coup, which could 
eventually lead to a bigger one."

Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah's speech Thursday afternoon left 
little doubt of the party's plans for Lebanon. "A war was declared 
against us," said Nasrallah, comparing decisions taken by the cabinet 
against Hizballah to a declaration of war launched on behalf of the 
United States and Israel. He threatened that he would go to war if he 
felt Hizballah was being forced to disarm, and would cut off the 
hands of anyone who would dare touch the party's weapons.

Nasrallah declared that Shoucair remained commander of the airport 
security, adding that any officer who tried to replace him would be 
treated as a spy. He accused the majority government of intending to 
turn the airport into a military base for the Mossad (the Israeli 
secret service), the CIA and the FBI.

Since Nasrallah's speech, all hell has broken loose in Lebanon. As 
the staccato rattle of machine guns and intermittent explosions shake 
the city, some believe Hizballah's coup d'etat is clearly under way.


FRIDAY, MAY 09, 2008
14:05 MECCA TIME, 11:05 GMT
Hezbollah in control of west Beirut

Clashes have again erupted on the streets of Beirut, the Lebanese 
capital, as Hezbollah takes control of large areas of the capital 
from groups loyal to the government following gun battles.

The building of Future TV network, owned by Saad Hariri, a prominent 
pro-government politician, was set alight in continued violence on Friday.
The street battles, which first erupted on Wednesday, have so far 
left at least 11 people dead and 20 others wounded.

Lebanese troops began taking up positions in some neighbourhoods in 
west Beirut abandoned by the pro-government groups.
The army has largely avoided getting involved in the street battles 
amid fears of being dragged into the conflict.

According to an opposition official, roadblocks will not be lifted 
around Beirut and the international airport until the government 
rescinds its measures against Hezbollah and sits down for a national dialogue.

Earlier in the day, a rocket-propelled grenade struck the fence of 
the heavily protected residence of Saad Hariri in the suburb of 
Koreitem, a Muslim area of western Beirut.

Hariri, leader of the Future bloc, the biggest party in Lebanon's 
governing coalition, was believed to be inside at the time but unhurt.

Earlier, armed men loyal to Hezbollah forced Future News, the news 
channel of the Future media group, off the air in Beirut.

"Gunmen surrounded the building, stormed into the garage and demanded 
that the army shut down the station," a senior TV official said.

Future group targeted

Security sources said Hezbollah and fighters from the allied Amal 
movement - both Shia groups - had overrun offices of Hariri's Future 
conglomerate across the predominantly Muslim western half of the 
Lebanese capital.

The headquarters of the Future media group's Al-Mustaqbal daily was 
also surrounded by fighters firing rocket-propelled grenades, setting 
fire to one floor, its managing editor said.

Nadim Munla, the general manager of Future TV, told Al Jazeera that 
masked armed men entered the control rooms and cut off the cables.

"We have been effectively prevented from broadcasting and doing our 
jobs as media professionals," he said.

"Hezbollah ... have proven that the gun is stronger than the value of 
the opinion. We have only one thing left - free speech, and their 
guns will not silence us."

Lebanese troops evacuated the staff of the TV station's terrestrial 
and satellite studios in the Kantari area of western Beirut.
Meanwhile, in a statement seen as politically significant, Michel 
Aoun, a Christian leader allied with the Hezbollah-led opposition, 
has said that normalcy should be restored on the streets.

"The derailed carriage is now back on track. We hope from this point 
that things will fall back into the normal course [of events]," he 
said on Friday.

Aoun said that he had sent a letter to Ban Ki-moon, the UN 
secretary-general, and various member states of the UN Security 
Council, but "did not find a clear response to avert the crisis".

Later, Amin Gemayel, leader of the pro-government Kataeb Party, the 
mainly Maronite Christian party, urged Christians to stay away from 
the fighting.

He accused Hezbollah of staging a coup.

Saudi pressure

Reports have also emerged that the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon 
advised Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister, to step down.

Al Jazeera's Rula Amin, reporting from Beirut, said: "This is a 
significant move considering that the Saudi government is a staunch 
supporter of the ruling coalition in Beirut.

"The Saudis see this as a dangerous situation that can escalate rapidly."

In an exclusive interview to Al Jazeera's Rula Amin, Walid Jumblatt, 
head of the Progressive Socialist Party and and leader of Lebanon's 
Druze community, said that he did not regret his backing for the 
removal of the head of security of Beirut airport, whom the 
government accused of being too close to Hezbollah.

"Jumblatt did not anticipate such a strong response from Hezbollah, 
and he is resigned to the fact that the group is much stronger than 
other armed militias," Amin said.

"He said that the government should have undertaken these moves 
earlier, but predicts that the fighting will end soon."

Jumblatt said: "I did not anticipate such a strong response from 
Hezbollah, but ... yes ... the group is much stronger than other 
armed militias."

He also said: "If you want to know what the next move for Hezbollah 
will be, ask [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad [the Iranian president]. This 
situation goes beyond Lebanese borders."

Hezbollah control

In several neighbourhoods across the capital, automatic rifle fire 
could be heard in the worst domestic fighting since the 1975-90 civil war.

Hezbollah also took control of all roads leading to Beirut's 
international airport, Lebanon's only air link to the outside world.

According to Elie Zakhour, a port official, Beirut's sea port was 
also shut down "until further notice" because of the situation, 
Lebanon's state-run National News Agency reported.

Tension between the government and Hezbollah escalated when the 
cabinet said the group's private phone network was illegal and an 
attack on the country's sovereignty.

Hezbollah said it was infuriated by government allegations it was 
spying on Beirut airport and by the cabinet's decision to fire the 
head of airport security.

The fighting has prompted urgent appeals for calm from the 
international community.

Meeting sought

Saudi Arabia and Egypt called for an urgent meeting of Arab foreign 
ministers to try to halt the violence.

"An emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo to discuss 
the crisis will be held in two days," Hossam Zaki, the Egyptian 
foreign ministery spokesman, said.

The UN Security Council also called for "calm and restraint", urging 
all sides to return to peaceful dialogue.

Syria said the dispute in Lebanon was an "internal affair" and 
expressed hope the feuding parties would find a solution through dialogue.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

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