Page last updated at 16:17 GMT, Thursday, 8 May 2008 17:17 UK

Hezbollah warns cabinet of 'war'

Hassan Nasrallah at the news conference (8 May 2008)
Hassan Nasrallah insisted Hezbollah had a right to defend itself

The leader of Hezbollah has said the Lebanese government's decision to close down its private telecommunications network was a "declaration of war".

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah warned that the move was "for the benefit of America and Israel" and vowed to "cut off the hand" that tries to dismantle it.

"We are now embarking on a totally new era," he told a news conference.

Earlier, the army warned its unity was at risk if the ongoing political crisis and civil unrest in Beirut continued.

The capital has been largely paralysed by roadblocks set up by opposition supporters during a second day of protests which started as a strike over pay.

We have the right... to defend ourselves, to defend our weapons, to defend our resistance and to defend our existence
Hassan Nasrallah
Leader of Hezbollah

There have also been heavy, sustained gun battles on Thursday in the Corniche al-Mazraa and Ras al-Nabaa districts of West Beirut between Sunni and Shia fighters, and the army remains out in force in parts of the city.

The Shia factions, led by Hezbollah, oppose the Western-backed government, while the Sunni and Druze factions support it.

The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, urged both sides "to cease immediately these riots and to re-open all roads in the country".

'New era'

Lebanon's Western-backed government declared Hezbollah's extensive fixed-line telecommunications network covering its strongholds of south and east Lebanon, and southern Beirut, illegal on Tuesday, saying it was a threat to state security.

The main roads to the international airport are blocked by barricades

Sheikh Nasrallah said Hezbollah's network was its most important weapon against foreign aggressors, and warned that any attempt to dismantle it would be resisted.

"This decision is first of all a declaration of war and the launching of war by the government... against the resistance and its weapons for the benefit of America and Israel," he said.

"Whoever declares war against us and who launches a war against us even if he's our father or brother, or just a political opponent, we have the right to confront him to defend ourselves, to defend our weapons, to defend our resistance and to defend our existence."

Sheikh Nasrallah said his group's military wing, the Islamic Resistance, regarded the network as "the most important part" of its defensive measures and explained how it played a key role in its conflict with Israel in 2006.

What happened in Lebanon is a rehearsal of what the small country is expected to witness over the coming days
Jordan's al-Dustur newspaper

He demanded the government therefore rescind its decision and also reinstate the head of security at Beirut international airport, Brig Gen Wafiq Shuqeir.

The government suspects him of sympathising with Hezbollah, and accused him of failing to deal with a secret camera allegedly set up by Hezbollah to monitor the movement of aircraft and VIPs.

But Sheikh Nasrallah insisted the general was not a member of any opposition group, merely a neutral member of the armed forces.

Appeal for calm

The Hezbollah leader's remarks came after many people in Beirut awoke for the second day running to find their city largely brought to a halt by roadblocks of burning tyres and bulldozed earthworks.

The army was deployed in key thoroughfares and crossroads dividing Beirut itself from the mainly Shia southern suburbs. But troops were not moved into densely built-up, heavily populated neighbourhoods nearby.

Man throws tire on fire in Beirut (8 May 2008)
The protests and disruption have affected all parts of the country

Many streets have been blocked off by local residents, with young men on a high state of alert, ready to defend their own neighbourhoods. About a dozen people were injured on Wednesday, mostly by stones, officials said.

Opposition supporters continued to block the roads to Beirut's international airport for a second day, leading to the cancellation of flights.

There were also clashes in the eastern Bekaa Valley, in which at least five people were wounded according to officials, and the main motorway leading to Syria was cut, heightening Beirut's isolation.

The Lebanese army command later warned that the "continuation of the situation... is a clear loss for all and harms the unity of the military institution".

In recent years, the army has been seen as one of Lebanon's most neutral institutions, but correspondents say the recent clashes could draw it into the conflict.

The BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut says that for the moment, it seems to be a tense stand-off, with everybody waiting to see if a way can be found to break the political deadlock.

It clearly would take very little to set off a conflagration that would be very hard to stop if shooting started in earnest, and blood was shed, he says.

Lebanon is currently witnessing its deepest political crisis since the civil war and has been without a head of state for five months because of the internal power struggle.

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