Lebanon fighting moves from Beirut to mountains

The Baltimore Sun

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Fierce clashes broke out yesterday in the mountains east of Beirut between supporters of the Western-backed government and followers of Hezbollah, the militant group backed by Iran.

The fighting, in the Shouf and Aley districts in the mountains overlooking the capital, Beirut, followed overnight clashes in the northern city of Tripoli that left at least two people dead and five wounded, according to security officials.

Beirut, where there had been heavy fighting between Sunnis and Shiites since Wednesday, was calm yesterday. Hezbollah and its allies began withdrawing their gunmen from the capital Saturday evening, raising hopes for a truce after four days of street battles there.

But the worst violence since Lebanon's 15-year civil war ended in 1990 seems to have shifted to the eastern villages.

Security officials put the toll of five days of fighting at 44 dead and 128 wounded.

Hezbollah's military dominance has raised pressure on the governing coalition to accept a resolution of Lebanon's 17-month political crisis on terms favorable to Hezbollah and its allies.

Supporters of the Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, who is allied with the government, and Hezbollah gunmen and their Druse allies exchanged machine-gun fire and rockets in several villages, a day after Hezbollah accused Jumblatt's followers of killing two of its members and kidnapping a third. There was no word on casualties.

Several hours after the clashes erupted, Jumblatt urged Talal Arslan, a rival Druse leader allied with Hezbollah, to mediate an end to the mountain clashes and allow the safe deployment of the Lebanese army in villages where there was heavy fighting.

Arslan agreed to a cease-fire, but sporadic fighting continued last night.

"I tell my supporters that civil peace, coexistence, and stopping war and destruction are more important than any other consideration," Jumblatt said in a brief television interview.

In Beirut, Lebanese army troops patrolled the streets after Hezbollah fighters pulled back from areas they had seized Friday.

However, many streets in western Beirut, including the one leading to the airport, remained blocked by opposition supporters.

The government and the Hezbollah-led opposition have been locked in a stalemate that has prevented the election of a president, leaving the country without one since November.

A government spokesperson said yesterday that the Cabinet would meet in the next two days to discuss an end to the crisis.

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