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Page last updated at 21:43 GMT, Friday, 9 May 2008 22:43 UK

Cabinet condemns Hezbollah 'coup'

A Shia gunman in Beirut on 9 May 2008

Lebanon's cabinet has said the seizure of most of western Beirut by the Shia group Hezbollah was "a bloody coup".

The Western-backed governing coalition said it was aimed at increasing Iran's influence and restoring that of Syria.

At least 15 people have been killed in three days of clashes between government and opposition supporters. Fighting died down later on Friday.

Washington restated its backing for the government, saying that Hezbollah was killing innocent civilians.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States was committed to helping the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

"We will stand by the Lebanese government and peaceful citizens of Lebanon through this crisis and provide the support they need to weather this storm," she said in a statement.

The gunmen, who also back Hezbollah's Shia opposition allies, have forced the closure of pro-government media.

The opposition has said Hezbollah and its allies will maintain roadblocks around Beirut until there is a solution to the political crisis.

But the Lebanese army is now also on the streets protecting Saad Hariri, a Sunni leader of the governing coalition, and other leading figures who support the cabinet.

The fighting was sparked by a government move on Monday to shut down Hezbollah's telecoms network.

Civil war fears

BEIRUT FLASHPOINTS
Map of Beirut
Future TV News: Attacked by gunmen
Hariri residence: Fence hit by rocket-propelled grenade
Siniora office: Prime minister reportedly holed up with staff
Al-Mustaqbal: Newspaper office partially set on fire
Hamra Street: March by armed Shia militants

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

"Violence will not terrorise us, but it will increase our resolve," it said.

Mr Siniora was reportedly holed up with several ministers in his heavily guarded in central Beirut.

The Lebanese army did not intervene to stop Hezbollah fighters from seizing large swaths of western Beirut.

The UN Security Council has urged the rival parties to stop fighting amid fears of civil war breaking out.

Lebanon was plunged into civil war from 1975-90, drawing in Syria and Israel, the two regional powers.

Analysts say the key to avoiding such a conflict this time may be the neutrality of the army, and its ability to withstand the sectarian tensions.

Political deadlock

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose country long dominated Lebanon, said on Friday that the political crisis there was an "internal matter".

Having withdrawn its army from the country in 2005, Syria denies meddling in Lebanon's internal politics.

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Lebanese army on the streets of Beirut

But Damascus has been accused of involvement in the assassination over the past three years of several anti-Syrians, including Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister.

Lebanon has been without a president since late 2007, amid deadlock between the ruling coalition and Hezbollah-led opposition over the make-up of the government.

Earlier, media offices owned by Saad Hariri were shut after being attacked by militants loyal to Hezbollah.

The army moved in after gunmen besieged TV station Future News and partially set fire to the offices of al-Mustaqbal newspaper. Mr Hariri's radio station was also silenced.

'Save Lebanon from hell'

A compromise was reached for the premises to be taken over and protected by the Lebanese army at the price of going off the air.

Several Sunni neighbourhoods in western Beirut, considered strongholds of Lebanon's ruling bloc, have reportedly been over-run by militants from Hezbollah and its Shia ally Amal.

A rocket-propelled grenade hit the fence of the heavily protected home of Mr Hariri in the Koreitem neighbourhood, officials said.

HAVE YOUR SAY
I hope that a return to the catastrophic days of the 70's and 80's can be avoided
Andy, UK

The urban warfare has shut down Lebanon's seaport and all but closed the international airport, with burning barricades on major roads in Beirut.

The BBC's Jim Muir in the city says it all amounts to a humiliating blow to the government.

It appears to have badly overplayed its hand in moving to close Hezbollah's telecoms network on Tuesday, he says.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has called the move a "declaration of war".

Mr Hariri said it was a "misunderstanding" and urged gunmen from both sides to withdraw "to save Lebanon from hell".


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