Friday, May 9, 2008

Hezbollah gunmen in west Beirut victory parades

(AFP) Convoys of gunmen firing celebratory shots into the air and flashing the victory sign took to the streets on Friday after the Hezbollah-led opposition seized control of west Beirut following fierce firefights with Sunni pro-government supporters.

Motorcycles, jeeps and cars crammed with militants hanging out of the windows roamed otherwise deserted streets of the Lebanese capital, wildly firing machine guns.

Many gunmen also posed for each other, taking photographs with their mobile phones.

Residents of some Sunni neighbourhoods that had been effectively under siege since Thursday shyly ventured outside.

"Beirut has fallen by force but not in spirit and not politically," said Joanna, one resident of predominantly Muslim west Beirut who was trapped inside her home for most of the day as fighters swarmed through the streets outside.

The Shiite militants seized control of swathes of the west of the city, including Sunni strongholds and pro-government media outlets, after a third day of fighting.

"It is relatively quiet now. A few stores have opened up. It's better than earlier -- at least we aren't seeing gunmen in the streets," said Samih, 45, who lives in the predominantly Sunni Tareeq al-Jadeedeh area.

Groups of young men who appeared to be unarmed gathered on street corners in the afternoon after the fighting ended.

Samih added that although the army was now patrolling the streets, this "isn't enough to reassure people it's over."

Abu Khalil, a resident of the Corniche al-Mazraa area which saw heavy fighting, said: "I lived through the (civil) war, and as usual whenever a party has demands they take to the streets with guns."

As an uneasy calm began to settle on Friday afternoon, cleaning crews began clearing away the mess and debris created by three days of violence.

Earlier in the day, after a long night of heavy shootouts, many residents tried to make their way out of the city.

"Everyone is running away," said Imad, a 35-year-old businessman who lives in the Ras An-Nabaa area.

He estimated that opposition militants "fired at least 150 rockets. They sent us an army.

"One woman and her son were killed by a rocket as they were trying to escape. Between every three or four buildings you would see Hezbollah guards wearing yellow armbands."

Rima, from the Karakol al-Druze district of west Beirut, said she and her family spent a "hellish night" on Thursday as armed gunmen prowled the neighbourhood.

"They were everywhere shooting all over the place," she said.

"Last night was surreal and chaotic... I am still in shock that this is happening in Beirut," said Rasha al-Jundi, 24, who lives in the usually bustling Hamra business district.

"The bangs were so loud. They shook the whole building... You would hear the shooting of different kinds of weapons, hand guns, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades."

The fighting intensified after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Thursday accused the government of making a declaration of war by planning a crackdown on the movement's communications network.

People rushed to the few stores that remained open to stock up on food and other basic supplies, as many west Beirut shops and businesses except for the occasional market or pharmacy stayed closed.

The roar of tanks rattling past could be heard, but the army was ordered not to become involved in the fighting in order to maintain its neutrality in the multi-confessional nation.

Air traffic was paralysed for the third straight day, and many roads leading to Syria remained blocked.

In predominantly Christian east Beirut, however, life was relatively normal in stark contrast to the west of the city. Banks, vegetable markets, supermarkets, garages and other business were open, and people and vehicles filled the streets as usual.