HEZBOLLAH  took control of large areas of Beirut last night, tightening their grip on the city in a major confrontation with the Government. Security sources said at least At least 18 people have been killed and 38 wounded in three days of battles between pro-government gunmen and fighters loyal to Hezbollah in the worst internal strife since the 1975-90 civil war. Hezbollah and its allies controlled all of mainly Muslim west Beirut, except in one district, Tarek al-Jadidi, where pro-Government gunmen laid down their arms late yesterday and allowed the army to move in. Witnesses in the neighbourhoods of Zarif, Corniche Mazraa and Ras al-Nabi said of Hezbollah and its ally Amal were out in force. Fierce gun battles were raging in the mixed Sunni-Shiite-Christian neighbourhood of Hamra, where Hezbollah appeared to be gaining ground. Beirut’s port was shutting down because of the conflict, port official Elie Zakhour said.Gunmen loyal to the Islamist movement, and Iran, forced the pro-Government Future News television off the air, said a senior official at the Beirut station. Future News is owned by Saad al-Hariri, a Sunni politician who leads the governing coalition known as the March 14 Alliance, which enjoys backing from the US, France and Saudi Arabia. Gunmen had also taken over the offices of Mr Hariri’s al-Mustaqbal newspaper. A rocket had hit the outer perimeter of Mr Hariri’s house in west Beirut, a source close to the Sunni leader said.

The gunmen later handed over several seized posts, including the Hariri media outlets and homes of some of his deputies and ministers, to the army without clashes.Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, said the events of the past few days "certainly leaves the Government weaker and the Future movement weaker."But Hezbollah did not want to be seen as an occupier by keeping its fighters in areas whose residents’ political loyalties lie with Mr Hariri, Mr Salem said. Handing control to the army appeared the most likely exit. Despite its military dominance, Hezbollah is unlikely to attempt a full takeover of government in the manner that Hamas secured control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Hezbollah’s chief, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has said the group will not use its weapons to bring about such a change. The violence was triggered by the Lebanese Government’s decision to declare Hezbollah’s phone and internet system

Globe May 9, 2008