Hezbollah fighters pull back after 4 bloody days in Beirut
Lebanese Army acts to clear out Shi'ite militants
BEIRUT - Hezbollah gunmen were pulling back from the streets of Beirut late yesterday, as the army moved to clear out the Shi'ite militants who demonstrated their military might in a power struggle with the US-backed government.
Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, in his first public statement since sectarian clashes erupted 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, Siniora 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 Shi'ite 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 antigovernment groups fought in a remote region of northern Lebanon, national 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 last week. The government said it would sack the chief of airport security for alleged ties to Hezbollah and declared the group's private phone 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 Shi'ite forces then overran large swaths of West Beirut.
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. On Friday, the United States accused Hezbollah, aided by its Iranian and Syrian sponsors, of trying to undermine Lebanon's sovereignty and democracy.
Siniora accused Hezbollah of staging a coup, besieging the capital, and "poisoning" the dream of democracy in Lebanon.
"The government did not declare war against Hezbollah. Hezbollah declared the war and is waging it with the aim of changing the local, regional, and international balance of powers," he said.
After Siniora's speech, the army called for gunmen to withdraw from the streets of Beirut and reopen blocked roads.
Seeking to stop the country's slide toward all-out chaos and sectarian strife, the military ordered army units "to continue to take measures on the ground to establish security and spread state authority and arrest the violators."
Siniora said he would leave it up to the army to resolve the confrontation that sparked the clashes over the airport security chief and the Hezbollah phone network.
The army offered Hezbollah a compromise. It said the airport security chief would not be sacked and recommended to the government that it reverse the decision on the phone network.
But the compromise did not fully satisfy the opposition's demands that the government officially revoke the two decisions.
The army has largely stayed out of the fighting, fearing its forces could break apart on sectarian lines. But in the past 24 hours they deployed heavily in neighborhoods of West Beirut seized earlier by the Shi'ites, stationing armored personnel carriers on corners and putting up more checkpoints.
The army command is respected by Hezbollah and an opposition statement said its forces will withdraw all their gunmen in Beirut to comply with the army request.