09 May 2008

-Recap of Beirut Violence

Gunmen from the Shia militant group Hezbollah have taken control of most of western Beirut, driving out supporters of the Western-backed government.

The gunmen, who support Hezbollah and its Shia opposition allies, also forced the closure of pro-government media.

The fighting was sparked by a government move on Monday to shut down Hezbollah's telecoms network.

At least 11 people, mainly civilians, have been killed and dozens injured in the city in three days of clashes.

The UN Security Council has urged the rival parties to stop fighting amid fears of civil war breaking out.

Lebanon was plunged into civil war between a 1975-90, drawing in Syria and Israel, the two regional powers.

Shiite Hezbollah supporters and the Lebanese government’s Sunni backers clashed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades Thursday in battles that spread through Beirut’s streets soon after Hezbollah’s leader vowed to fight any attempt to disarm his men.

Lebanese security officials said two people were killed and eight wounded in the sectarian clashes.

The violence first erupted in Muslim West Beirut, where masked gunmen on street corners opened fire along Corniche Mazraa, a major thoroughfare that has become a demarcation line between the two sides.

It spread to Khandaq el-Ghamiq, a neighborhood adjacent to downtown, which is home to the government’s offices. Shootings and explosions were reported by witnesses and television stations in the Aisha Bakkar neighborhood near the office of Lebanon’s Sunni spiritual leader, who is allied with the government.

Gunfire and explosions were also heard in a nearby district where the opposition-aligned parliament speaker has his official residence.

Troops in armored carriers had earlier moved in to West Beirut to separate people who were trading insults and throwing stones at each other, but the troops did not attempt to stop the street battles that then broke out.

The army, which has been struggling to contain the disturbances, warned of the consequences to the country and the military. “The continuation of the situation as is is a clear loss for all and harms the unity of the military institution,” a statement said.

Reminiscent of 15-year civil war
The clashes have brought back memories of the devastating 1975-1990 civil war that has left lasting scars on Lebanon.

Beirut residents are now seeing fresh demarcation lines, burning tires and roadblocks.

The army has largely stayed out of the broader political struggle between Hezbollah and the government for fear of exacerbating the situation. The army’s commander is the two factions’ consensus candidate for president.

Gen. Michel Suleiman so far has advised the government not to declare a state of emergency.

The clashes came close on the heels of a defiant speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who said his Iranian-backed militant organization would respond with force to any attacks.

“Those who try to arrest us, we will arrest them,” he said. “Those who shoot at us, we will shoot at them. The hand raised against us, we will cut it off.”

It was the second day of fighting that has turned some city neighborhoods into battlegrounds and spilled over to other parts of the country.

The violence appeared to begin as a test of wills between political rivals who have been locked in a 17-month power struggle for control of the government. It now could be degenerating into a wider and deadlier sectarian conflict, with the Sunnis’ spiritual leader denouncing Hezbollah and appealing to a largely Sunni Islamic world to intervene.

No president since November
The rivals have failed to agree on electing a president, leaving the country without a head of state since November.

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 militants.

The government also declared Hezbollah’s private communications network to be illegal.

Hezbollah and leaders of the 1.2-million-strong Shiite community, believed to be Lebanon’s largest sect, rejected the decisions, and the airport security chief kept his job.

Supporters of the Hezbollah-led opposition blocked roads in the capital on Wednesday to enforce a strike called by labor 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.

Violence spreads outside capital
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, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.

The area is on a major crossroads linking the Shiite areas of Baalbek, a Hezbollah stronghold, with central Lebanon and Beirut.

Nasrallah claimed Hezbollah’s secure network of primitive private land lines helped the guerrillas fight Israel’s high-tech army in the 2006 summer war.

He said the telecommunications network was “the most important part of the weapons of the resistance” and added Hezbollah had a duty to defend those weapons.

“The decision is tantamount to a declaration of war ... on the resistance and its weapons in the interest of America and Israel,” Nasrallah said.

Hezbollah supporters kept the road to the country’s only airport blocked, effectively closing the airport for a second day.


As Hezbollah fighters move around large swathes of Beirut unopposed, the BBC's Jim Muir in the city says it all amounts to a humiliating blow to the government.

It appears to have badly overplayed its hand in moving to close Hezbollah's telecoms network on Tuesday, says our correspondent.

The government declared illegal the fixed-line network that covers the movement's strongholds of south and east Lebanon and southern Beirut.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called the move a "declaration of war" in a speech on Thursday.

Mr Hariri proposed a compromise, calling it a "misunderstanding" and saying the army would have the final say.

He urged gunmen from both sides to withdraw from the streets "to save Lebanon from hell", as he called for a meeting with Sheikh Nasrallah.

(lebanon today)

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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.