Violence escalates in Lebanon

    BEIRUT, Lebanon &

    Shiite Hezbollah gunmen seized nearly all of the Lebanese capital's Muslim sector from Sunni foes loyal to the U.S.-backed government on today in the country's worst sectarian clashes since the 15-year civil war.

    At least 11 people have been killed and more than 20 wounded in three days of street battles in West Beirut between the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah fighters and gunmen to the government, security officials said.

    The satellite TV station affiliated with the party of Lebanon's top Sunni lawmaker, Saad Hariri, was forced off the air. Gunmen set the offices of the party's newspaper, Al-Mustaqbal, on fire in the coastal neighborhood of Ramlet el-Bayda.

    Hariri and Druse leader Walid Jumblatt were besieged in their West Beirut residences. Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and several ministers holed up in Saniora's downtown office surrounded by troops and police.

    Gunmen loyal to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party set ablaze a two-story building where Hariri's Future TV has its archives in the western neighborhood of Rawche, about 100 yards from the Saudi embassy. The secular pro-Syrian group, a longtime ally of Hezbollah, has dozens of its own gunmen in the streets.

    A rocket-propelled grenade hit the fence of Hariri's heavily protected residence, security officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the media.

    Pro-government majority officials held an emergency meeting in a mountain town in the Christian heartland northeast of Beirut, according to LBC TV, a pro-government Christian station.

    "Even if Hezbollah's militia took everything we remain the constitutional authority," Cabinet Minister Ahmed Fatfat told Al-Arabiya TV from Saniora's compound.

    The unrest shut down Lebanon's international airport and barricades set up by both side closed major highways. The seaport also was closed, leaving one land route to Syria as Lebanon's only link to the outside world.

    Arab foreign ministers called an emergency meeting for Sunday in Cairo, Egypt to discuss the crisis, Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said.

    About 100 Shiite Hezbollah militants wearing camouflage uniforms and carrying assault rifles marched down Hamra Street, a normally vibrant commercial strip in a mainly Sunni area of Beirut. They took up positions in corners and sidewalks and stopped the few cars braving the empty streets to search their trunks.

    On nearby streets, dozens of fighters from another Hezbollah-allied party appeared, some wearing masks and carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

    Lebanon's army, which has stayed out of the sectarian political squabbling that has paralyzed the country for more than a year, did not intervene in the clashes, which had largely tapered off into sporadic gunfire by early afternoon.

    Troops then began taking up positions in some Sunni neighborhoods abandoned by the pro-government groups. A senior security official said the army would soon take over the Sunnis' last stronghold of Tarik Jadideh.

    In some cases Hezbollah handed over newly won positions to Lebanese troops.

    The sectarian tensions are fueled in part by the rivalry between predominantly Shiite Iran which sponsors Hezbollah, and Sunni Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

    The leaders of Syria, Hezbollah's other major backer, and Qatar, which supports the Lebanese government, met in Damascus and Syria's official news agency said both agreed the conflict was an internal affair and hoped the feuding parties would find a solution through dialogue.

    France's Foreign Ministry said an evacuation of its citizens in Lebanon was not planned, but warned against travel to the country.

    In an online briefing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani called on French nationals in Lebanon to act with the "utmost prudence."

    The Lebanese government, which is allied with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, has only a slim majority in parliament. The two sides have been locked in a power struggle that has kept government at a standstill and the country without a president since November.

    The eruption of the long-simmering tensions appeared to be triggered by the government's decision this week to confront Hezbollah by declaring its private communications network illegal and replacing the Beirut airport security chief for alleged ties to the militants.

    Hezbollah first blocked roads in Beirut on Wednesday. Confrontations quickly spread and became more violent. Factions threw up roadblocks and checkpoints dividing Beirut into sectarian enclaves, and the chattering of automatic weapons and thumps of rocket-propelled grenades echoed across the city overnight.

    Street clashes exploded into gunbattles in parts of Beirut on Thursday afternoon after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah accused Lebanon's Western-backed government of declaring war on his group. It was the militant leader's strongest comments since Lebanon's political crisis erupted 17 months ago.

    Hariri later went on television urging Hezbollah to pull its fighters back and "save Lebanon from hell." He proposed a compromise that would involve the army, one of the sole national institutions respected by Lebanon's long deadlocked factions.

    But Hezbollah and its allies swiftly rejected the offer.

    Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war left 150,000 dead and much of the city devastated and carved into warring sectarian enclaves.

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