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Hezbollah: Gunmen withdrawing from Beirut

Image: Violence in Lebanon
An ambulance arrives at the site of a shooting, as people try to help the injured in Beirut, Lebanon, on Saturday.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hezbollah said Saturday it was withdrawing its gunmen from Beirut neighborhoods seized in sectarian clashes after the army ordered its troops to establish security and called on fighters to clear the streets.

But while tensions in Lebanon's capital appeared to be defusing, at least 12 people were killed and 20 wounded when pro- and anti-government groups fought in a remote region of northern Lebanon, security and hospital officials said. It was the heaviest toll for a single clash since sectarian fighting began on Wednesday.

Hezbollah and its allied seized large swaths of Muslim west Beirut Friday, demonstrating their military might in a power struggle with the government.

Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, in his first public statement since the sectarian violence erupted, 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 and accused Hezbollah of staging a coup.

Lawlessness engulfs seaside city A total of 25 people have been killed and dozens wounded in the recent violence — the worst sectarian bloodshed since the 1978-90 civil war that killed 150,000 people and left Beirut divided along religious lines.

On Saturday, a Shiite Muslim shop owner opened fire on a Sunni funeral procession, killing two people and wounding six others in a Sunni neighborhood, police and witnesses said.

The shooting underlined the lawlessness that has engulfed the seaside city since Sunni-Shiite violence first erupted four days ago.

An Associated Press photographer who witnessed Saturday’s shooting said the attack came as a procession of 200 people marched toward a cemetery to bury a 24-year-old man killed by a sniper’s bullet earlier this week.

The shooting occurred even though the Lebanese army had positioned armored personnel carriers and jeeps at every intersection. The neighborhood, Tarik Jadideh, was one of the few Sunni areas Shiite militants had not seized Friday because the army had deployed in large numbers.

Police said troops later captured the gunman. After the attack, angry residents stormed the shop and set it on fire.

The violence has spread to other areas of Lebanon. Police said Saturday that seven people were killed in the mountain town of Aley east of Beirut on Friday. Another civilian died in the clashes in the southern city of Sidon, police said.

The army, which has stayed on the sidelines of the political crisis that has paralyzed Lebanon for more than a year, deployed heavy armor and troops to seal off neighborhoods after Hezbollah militants pulled back.

Hezbollah seized the Sunni neighborhoods of Beirut after its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, on Thursday accused the U.S.-backed government of “declaring war” on the militant group.

Lebanon’s Cabinet had sought to rein in Hezbollah by ordering the removal of an airport security chief over alleged ties to militants and demanding the dismantling of the movement’s private phone network.

Bitter power struggle Along with seizing neighborhoods, militants also have shut Lebanon’s airport by barricading the road leading to it. The seaport also was closed.

The Shiite fighters’ swift success dramatically empowered the hand of the Hezbollah-led opposition in the bitter political struggle with pro-Western factions over who will guide the country.

The rout of government supporters also was a blow for Washington, which has long considered Hezbollah a terrorist group and condemns its ties to Syria and Iran. The Bush administration has been a strong supporter of Saniora’s government and its army the last three years.