Hezbollah and Sunni group clash in Beirut with heavy weapons leaving 3 dead

By Elizabeth A. Kennedy, AP
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Hezbollah, Sunni group clash in Beirut, killing 3

BEIRUT — Lebanese Shiite and Sunni groups fought street battles using machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades for more than four hours Tuesday, killing three people and wounding several others just blocks from a busy downtown packed with summer tourists.

The dead included a Hezbollah official and his aide, security officials said.

Lebanese soldiers cordoned off the area during the worst of the fighting, but the crackle of sniper fire and blasts from rocket-propelled grenades were audible for hours.

Gunmen stood on corners and peering down alleyways while families ran for cover during lulls in the fighting. Ambulances rushed to the scene; an elderly man was loaded into a stretcher clutching his neck, while another man was covered in blood and not moving.

It was the worst clash in Beirut since May 2008, when Hezbollah gunmen swept through Sunni neighborhoods after the pro-Western government tried to dismantle the group’s telecommunications network.

The 2008 fighting brought the country to the brink of a new civil war, but officials insisted Tuesday’s clash was not the same sectarian strife that has bedeviled Lebanon for decades.

The shootout erupted between the Shiite Hezbollah and the conservative Sunni Al-Ahbash group following a fight outside a mosque in the mixed residential area of Bourj Abu Haidar, security officials said.

A joint statement issued later by the two groups said the incident resulted from an “personal dispute and has no political or sectarian background.”

It said the two sides agreed to immediately put an end to their differences and end all armed presence on the street.

The officials said Mohammed Fawaz, a Hezbollah official from the area, and his aide, Munzer Hadi, were killed in the clashes along with Fawaz Omeirat of Al-Ahbash.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Salah, a 40-year-old who did not wish to give his last name, said he was inside the Bourj Abu Haidar mosque when he heard a commotion outside and people started screaming “Calm down! Calm down!”

About 20 minutes later, he heard gunshots and bullets slamming into the mosque.

“They were shooting at the mosque. I think these people are crazy. They must have gone home to get their friends,” he told The Associated Press.

Salah stayed inside with others before fleeing when the fighting stopped.

Hours later, the ground outside the mosque was littered with spent bullet casings and rubble. A gunman wearing a black mask huddled in the darkness behind the mosque as army officers warned people who ventured outside to tread carefully because there could be unexploded grenades on the streets.

The windows of cars and shops were shot out; one woman yelled down from her balcony, “Is it safe? Can I run away from this place now?”

Angry fighters also set fire to another mosque in the nearby neighborhood of Basta, according to an AP photographer.

The clashes took place as Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah addressed supporters, saying his Iranian-backed group can use its friendship with Tehran to secure assistance for Lebanon’s army.

Hezbollah, a powerful military force in Lebanon, maintains its own arsenal — separate from the national army’s — which it says is necessary to ward off any threats from Israel.

Lebanon’s government is an uneasy coalition of a Western-backed bloc and Hezbollah, which in just a few years has gained so much political power it now has a virtual veto over government decisions.

Tensions in this tiny Arab nation, which has a grim history of sectarian strife, have been running high in recent weeks over signs a U.N. tribunal could indict Hezbollah in the 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — the father of the current prime minister.

Nasrallah has said he has information that the tribunal will implicate Hezbollah members, but he says the tribunal is an “Israeli project” and has no credibility.

Al-Ahbash, or the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, is a deeply conservative Muslim group and a rival to many other Sunni groups in the country, including the prime minister’s Future movement.

The group’s name rose to prominence in the wake of the Hariri assassination. Two senior officials from the group were detained for about four years on suspicion of involvement in the killing, but were later released.

Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report.

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