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4 dead as political rivals clash for 2nd day in Beirut

At least four people have been killed and eight injured as Shia Hezbollah supporters and Sunnis backing Lebanon's pro-Western government clashed in the streets of Beirut for a second day.

At least four people have been killed and eight injured as Shia Hezbollah supporters and Sunnis backing Lebanon's pro-Western government clashed in the streets of Beirut for a second day.

Television footage showed gunmen with automatic weapons taking cover on street corners. Most shops were closed and the streets appeared empty.

Reuters reported as many as eight people have been killed and 16 injured.

Thursday's violence erupted minutes after a defiant speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who warned a recent attempt by the government to shut down the militant organization's communications network could be considered a declaration of war.

Hours later, Sunni parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri made a televised appeal urging Hezbollah to end the violence and "stop the slide toward civil war."

Hariri proposed a compromise, saying the decision on the Hezbollah communications network could be made by the army command rather than the cabinet.

Hezbollah's Al-Manar television said the Iranian and Syrian-backed group had rejected the offer. 

Hariri is the son of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005. Reuters reported Hezbollah fighters raided offices of Hariri's Future Movement, the largest bloc in the country's pro-Western governing coalition.

Violence spreads outside capital

Hezbollah leader Nasrallah, who delivered his speech to a news conference via videolink, said Hezbollah would respond to such moves from the government with force.

"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."

Along with the move to shut down the communications network, the government has also tried to replace the Beirut airport security chief because of his alleged ties to Hezbollah.

The Hezbollah-led opposition and its supporters objected and the airport security chief kept his position. They set up roadblocks in the capital Wednesday to support a general strike called by labour unions to protest government policies. The blockades have disrupted flights in and out of the country's only international airport.

The strike quickly escalated into street confrontations between the rival sides, spreading outside the capital on Thursday. Reports of clashes came from the eastern Bekaa Valley, where five people were injured.

In Beirut, cars and shops were set on fire as terrified residents fled or hid. The sounds of automatic weapon fire and rocket-propelled grenades echoed through the capital as tanks roamed the streets to prevent violence from spreading.

"It's very tense, people are very scared," said Ben Gilbert, a freelance reporter working in Beirut. "People are in the streets willing to fight right now."

UN, U.S. both weigh in

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday called for calm.

"The secretary general urges all parties to cease immediately these riots and to reopen all roads in the country," UN envoy Terje Roed-Larse told the Security Council during a briefing on the situation.

Also Thursday, Washington demanded Hezbollah end its "disruptive activities" in Lebanon.

"Hezbollah needs to make a choice: be a terrorist organization or be a political party, but quit trying to be both. They need to start playing a constructive role and stop their disruptive activities now," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

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. Lebanon has been without a president since last November when pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud left office without a successor.

The clashes have taken on a sectarian tone, bringing back memories of the devastating 1975-90 civil war that has left lasting scars on Lebanon.

Most Sunnis support the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Shias generally support the opposition led by Hezbollah, a group the U.S. has labelled a terrorist organization. Christians are split between the two.

With files from the Associated Press

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