Heavy Fighting Breaks Out in Northern Lebanon

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Government supporters and opponents battled with rockets and machine guns in the mountains overlooking Beirut Sunday as clashes shifted to outside the capital.

Beirut was quiet a day after Hezbollah gunmen left the streets, heeding an army call for the Shiite fighters to clear out. The city had been the focus of four days of Sunni-Shiite clashes that culminated with Hezbollah seizing large swaths of Muslim West Beirut, demonstrating its military might in a showdown with the government.

So far, 38 people have been killed in clashes that began Wednesday, the worst sectarian violence since Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

The violence grew out of a long-simmering power struggle between the Hezbollah-led opposition and the U.S.-backed government. The opposition quit the Cabinet 17 months ago, demanding a veto over all government decisions. The deadlock has kept parliament from electing a new president since November.

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Analysts said the outbreak of violence improves the chances for a breakthrough in the political crisis because the opposition now has the upper hand, which could force the government to compromise.

Hezbollah's demonstration of its power over the past week was a blow Washington. The U.S. has long considered Hezbollah a terrorist group and condemned its ties to Syria and Iran. The Bush administration has been a strong supporter of Saniora's government and its army for the last three years.

The conflict has also heightened concerns in the Middle East and the West over Iran's growing influence and its intentions in the region.

The worst violence over the weekend was outside of Beirut. On Sunday, heavy fighting broke out in the central mountain town of Aytat and the sounds of heavy machine gun fire and explosions from the clashes rolled across Beirut, 15 kilometers (9 miles) away.

As the fighting raged in the mountain region, black smoke could be seen billowing from Druse villages.

Pro-government supporters of Druse leader Walid Jumblatt and Shiite gunmen and their allies exchanged rockets and machine gun fire, security officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The violence spread to the nearby towns of Kayfoun, Qamatiyeh, Bchamoun and Chouweifat, they said. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

The clashes came a day after Hezbollah accused Jumblatt's followers of killing two of their supporters and kidnapping a third.

The Aley region is predominantly Druse and Maronite Christians. However, two villages in the area are dominated by Shiites, many of them Hezbollah supporters.

Jumblatt called on his top Druse opponent to mediate a cease-fire and hand over the mountain region to Lebanese troops.

Shortly afterward, Talal Erslan, the leading Druse leader in the opposition, called at a news conference for all opposition groups to cease fire immediately in the mountains. He urged Jumblatt's supporters to hand over their weapons and offices to the army.

Jumblatt, speaking to private LBC television, implicitly called on his militiamen to give up their positions and hand them over to the army.

"I say to my followers that civil peace and stopping the war and destruction is above any other consideration," he said.

Overnight, there were fierce clashes in the north, particularly in the city of Tripoli where pro-government supporters exchanged rocket propelled grenades and heavy machine gun fire with opposition followers, security officials said. One woman was killed.

The clashes were over by morning when the Lebanese army deployed on the streets to separate the warring factions.

The sectarian clashes began days after the government confronted Hezbollah with decision to sack the chief of airport security for alleged ties to the militant group and to declare Hezbollah's private telephone network illegal.

The army offered Hezbollah a compromise on Saturday, allowing the airport security chief to retain his post and recommending the government to reverse its decision on the phone network.

A government official said Sunday the Cabinet would meet in the next two days "to discuss the possible exits for the crisis." It is widely believed the cabinet will then revoke its decisions. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

At midday, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and some of his ministers and staff observed a moment of silence at the government building in honor of those killed in violence. A nearby downtown church tolled its bells to mark the occasion.

Beirut's streets were largely deserted Sunday, a day off in Lebanon. Many roads remained blocked, including the one to the airport, by the ongoing civil disobedience campaign of the opposition

In the western Beirut neighborhood of Karakol Druse, which saw heavy fighting Thursday, a man swept glass outside his shop. A gaping hole from a rocket propelled grenade and bullet holes marked the facade of a normally busy bakery, now closed.

There were few signs of gunmen openly carrying weapons, save for small knots of Hezbollah allies from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party sitting outside the Economy Ministry in one seaside district.

On Beirut's normally bustling seaside corniche, workers outside five-star hotels cleaned blackened streets scarred by burning tires.

Arab foreign ministers met in Egypt to try to find a solution to the latest deadly crisis. They called for an immediate halt to the violence and for all gunmen to pull out of Beirut.