Hezbollah to withdraw gunmen in Lebanon

By Robert F. Worth and Nada Bakri
Published: May 10, 2008
BEIRUT, Lebanon: Hezbollah and its allies began withdrawing their gunmen here in the capital on Saturday evening, raising hopes for a political settlement after four days of street battles that left at least 29 people dead. The fighting has stoked fears of a broader civil conflict. Skip to next paragraph Enlarge This Image Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press The scene in Beirut after members of a funeral procession began smashing windows, prompting a store owner to open fire.
Hezbollah acted shortly after the Lebanese Army — widely seen as a neutral force here — proposed to resolve the dispute that provoked the latest round of bloody confrontations between the Hezbollah-led opposition and government supporters.
Armed Hezbollah supporters seized control of western Beirut on Friday, patrolling the empty streets and prompting angry accusations that the group, which is backed by Iran and Syria, had staged a coup.
On Saturday afternoon, after another day of sporadic violence, the army offered to broker a face-saving solution by promising to “investigate” Hezbollah’s controversial private telephone network without harming the group’s integrity. It also proposed to retain the current chief of airport security, a Hezbollah ally whom the government had tried to fire.
That proposal — quickly embraced by both government leaders and the opposition — sharply underscored the Lebanese Army’s role as the one national institution seen as neutral here. Many have feared that the army would fragment along sectarian or political lines, as it did during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.
Instead, it has come through the latest conflict unscathed. That neutrality has come at a price: in this crisis, as in others, the army stood passively by, unwilling to be seen as taking sides, even when street battles were taking place.
Still, the army’s proposal is likely to enhance the political prospects of its leader, General Michel Suleiman, who appears to be the only man both political camps are willing to accept as Lebanon’s next president. The presidency has been vacant since November.
“All this has proved that the army is the only guarantor of security in Lebanon,” despite its relative weakness, said Osama Safa, the general director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.
It remained unclear on Saturday how the recent confrontations might alter the balance of power here. Hezbollah clearly hoped that its show of force would translate into enhanced power in the political stalemate that has crippled Lebanon for 17 months now.
But Lebanon is notoriously resistant to political settlements, and some political analysts here say they believe that the government may have won a moral victory by abstaining from large-scale violence in response to Hezbollah’s aggression. Some government leaders were already accusing the Shiite group of betraying its promise to use its weapons only against Israel.
Earlier in the day, Lebanon’s prime minister, Fouad Siniora, lashed out at Hezbollah in a televised address for using its weapons against fellow Lebanese, and he called on the Lebanese Army to retake control of the streets from militia fighters.
“The core of the problem with Hezbollah is that they have decided to force their will on the Lebanese,” Siniora said, in his first public comments since the latest crisis began on Wednesday.
At least 29 people have been killed and scores wounded in gun battles since Wednesday, in the worst sectarian bloodshed since Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990.
The confrontation has posed a fresh challenge to the Bush administration, which has supported Siniora’s government in part to counter Hezbollah and its patrons, Iran and Syria.
On Saturday, Hezbollah officials announced that three Hezbollah members had been kidnapped in the Chouf mountain town of Aley, and that two others had been killed by fighters loyal to Walid Jumblatt, the Druse leader. Hezbollah’s statement made it clear that the group held Jumblatt, who is allied with Siniora’s government, responsible for the kidnapping and murders of the men, who were found shot and stabbed in front of a hospital.
In northern Lebanon, at least 10 people were killed in scattered gun battles between supporters of the government and the Hezbollah-led opposition, Al Jazeera television reported.
Although most of Beirut was somewhat calmer on Saturday, a funeral for a Sunni government supporter erupted into bloodshed when a Shiite storeowner opened fire on the mourners.
As the pallbearers approached a store owned by a member of the Amal Party, which is allied with Hezbollah, mourners urged the owner to close his store. When he refused, they started smashing the windows. Furious, the store- owner opened fire at them, killing Ali Masri, 23, and Moussa Zouki, 24.
Meanwhile, with violence continuing, the governments of Turkey and Kuwait began evacuating their citizens through Lebanon’s northern border with Syria, the only open route out of the country. The road to Lebanon’s airport has been blocked since Wednesday by Hezbollah supporters. Other land routes are cut off, and the Beirut port is also shut.
Some Lebanese took to the streets on Saturday to express their outrage over Hezbollah’s show of force, and over the armed attacks on a television station and newspaper allied with the government. A group of government supporters marched to the offices of Future Television, a satellite channel that was commandeered by the army after Hezbollah supporters threatened it on Friday.
“Hezbollah are liars; they are despicable,” said Nawal al-Meouchi, 60, who had come to show her support along with her husband, her son and her daughter. “They said they would never turn their arms on the Lebanese, but they
have.”

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