Lebanon condemns Hezbollah's 'bloody coup' in West Beirut

Lebanon's cabinet has called the Shia group Hezbollah's seizure of most of the capital's Muslim sector a "bloody coup."

Lebanon's cabinet has called the Shia group Hezbollah's seizure of most of the capital's Muslim sector a "bloody coup."

A burnt-out motorcycle, right, lies near a building in Beirut belonging to the Future Movement, where Hezbollah militants hung Palestinian flags and pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad and former Lebanese president Emile Lahoud. ((Hussein Malla/Associated Press))
Hezbollah gunmen seized the western part of Beirut on Friday from Sunni forces loyal to the pro-Western government in what's being called the country's worst sectarian clashes since the 15-year civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.

The takeover came after three days of street battles that left at least 15 dead. Late Friday, Hezbollah leaders pulled back their fighters in what some say was a signal that they weren't looking for a bloody showdown.

After holding an emergency session, the Lebanese government issued a statement saying, "The armed and bloody coup which is being implemented aims to return Syria to Lebanon and extend Iran's reach to the Mediterranean."

Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier said in a statement that Canada "strongly condemns the actions of Hezbollah to incite violence."

"Hezbollah and its supporters must not be allowed to pull Lebanon toward war," he said, adding that his department is keeping a close eye on the situation and providing information to Canadians registered in Lebanon.

U.S.  Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement that the United States will "stand by the Lebanese government and peaceful citizens of Lebanon" as they "weather this storm."

Even as fighting died down Friday, most residents were staying off the streets and in their homes as sporadic gunfire could still be heard.

Shia gunmen earlier in the day captured a television station affiliated with top Sunni lawmaker Saad Hariri and forced it off the air. The militia also burned down the offices of the governing party's newspaper.    

Lebanon's army, which has stayed out of the sectarian political squabbling that has paralyzed the country for more than a year, only intervened after the building housing the satellite TV station was set ablaze. Troops provided cover for firefighters, who eventually extinguished the flames.

Although the fighting had died down considerably by Friday afternoon, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora  and several ministers remained holed up in Siniora 's downtown office surrounded by troops and police.

Militias demanding identification from citizens

As gunfire rang through the streets of the capital on Friday, militias on both sides of the conflict stopped people at random and asked for identification to determine which sect they were from.

The conflict began Wednesday when Hezbollah-led opposition groups, angered by the government's efforts to replace the Beirut airport security chief because of his alleged ties to Hezbollah, erected roadblocks in support of labour unions which had called a general strike to protest government policies.

The blockades quickly escalated into conflict that spread outside Beirut by Thursday and impeded flights in and out of the country's international airport.

Violence reached a peak Thursday following a news conference by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who said the Lebanese government's attempt to shut down his organization's communications network was tantamount to a declaration of war.

"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."

Hezbollah supporters have blocked access to Beirut's airport, which remained closed Friday, as well as to the port and most major roads leading out of the country. Highways out of the capital have been packed over the last two days as Lebanese citizens seek cover from the fighting, the CBC's Aaron Schachter reported from Beirut.

Iran, Syria vs. Egypt, Saudi Arabia

The conflict — a growing sign that the government and its supporters are losing control of the Middle Eastern country — is said to be fuelled in part by the rivalry between predominantly Shia Iran, which along with Syria sponsors Hezbollah, and Sunni Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia that support the Lebanese government. 

It has sparked fears that the country could be plunged back into sectarian civil war.

"It's really conjuring a lot of the images that our parents warned us about from the civil war," said 23-year-old Anthony Haddad, who lives in a mixed Christian/Shia district of Beirut.

"I think people are generally thinking about leaving again. People are already packing up and going to their houses in the mountains. It doesn't seem like it's something that's going to be transient."

Saudi Arabia is calling for an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers to address the situation in Lebanon, the country's state television reported Friday.

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

Most Sunni Muslims in Lebanon support the Western-backed government of Siniora. Shias generally support the opposition led by Hezbollah, a group the U.S. has labelled a terrorist organization. Lebanese Christians appear split between the two.

With files from the Associated Press