Fighting intensified after Hezbollah's leader said the government's actions
were "tantamount to a declaration of war" [AFP]

Eight people have been killed and 15 people wounded in Lebanon, according to security sources, as the country's political crisis threatens to spiral out of control. 

Fighting in Beirut intensified on Thursday, the second day of anti-government protests, after a speech by Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, in which he called a government crackdown on the Shia group "tantamount to a declaration of war".

In several neighbourhoods across the capital automatic rifle fire could be heard as fighters in support of Hezbollah and the allied Amal group exchanged fire with pro-government fighters in the worst domestic fighting since the 1975-90 civil war.

Hezbollah claims the government has moved against it by such actions as the launching of an investigation into the Shia group's private telephone network.

Tension between the government and Hezbollah escalated when the cabinet said the group's communication network was an attack on the country's sovereignty.

Hezbollah says it is infuriated by government allegations it was spying on Beirut airport and by the cabinet's decision to fire the head of airport security who is close to the opposition.

Government offer rejected

 

Saad al-Hariri, leader of the Lebanese parliamentary majority and son of the assassinated former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, proposed a deal on Thursday to end the crisis under which the government decisions that have infuriated Hezbollah would be considered a "misunderstanding" and be referred to the Lebanese army.

 

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'Declaration of war'

In an own televised address, he criticised Hezbollah, saying: "What fate are you dragging the Muslims to - are you dragging us back to civil war?"

He proposed a compromise solution spearheaded by the army - seen as neutral - to end the fighting and "save Lebanon from hell" and called for Hezbollah to lift its "siege" of the capital. 

The move will give General Michel Suleiman, the commander of the army - which has been neutral in the confrontation so far - the option to suspend the implementation of the government decisions.

 

But Hezbollah's al-Manar TV quoted an opposition source rejecting any ideas for ending the conflict other than Nasrallah's demand that the measures be rescinded.

Clashes were reported to have broken out in other parts of the country, with another seven people reported injured in the Beqaa valley.

The Lebanese army did not participate in the fighting.

But Robert Fisk, a journalist in Beirut, speaking to Al Jazeera, said that could change if the fighting escalated.

"If we have a situation where one group of people move into another group's area - either Shia or Sunni -  then the army may have to take much harsher measures and that immediately raises the question of 'what is the future of the Lebanese army', because it's made up of all the citizens of this country, not just one group or the other," Fisk said.

Gun battles

"The fighting seems to be spreading," reported James Bays, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Beirut. "It's something all the political parties said they wanted to avoid."

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Thursday's fighting occurred on Corniche Mazraa, a major thoroughfare in Beirut that has become a demarcation line between mainly Sunni and Shia neighbourhoods, and the nearby Ras el-Nabeh area.

The violence later spread to Khandaq el-Ghamiq, adjacent to the centre of the city.

Television footage showed armed and masked men taking cover on street corners next to shuttered shops.

Shootings and explosions were also reported near Aicha Akkar and in Ein el-Tineh, where the opposition-aligned parliament speaker has his official residence.

'Calm and restraint'

In the US, the United Nations Security Council also called for "calm and restraint", urging all sides to return to peaceful dialogue.

The council issued a non-binding policy statement, which lacks the force of a resolution, after a briefing by Terje Roed-Larsen, a UN special envoy to the Middle East, who warned that the situation in Lebanon was the worst since the civil war.

"At the top of the agenda at the Security Council today is the issue of armed militias in the streets of Beirut and elsewhere," Roed-Larsen said, speaking to Al Jazeera after the briefing.

Many of Beirut's citizens tried to flee the
city to find safety [AFP]
"What we are seeing today illustrates the necessities of integrating the Lebanese militias into the army. Unless this is done I fear that what we are seeing today will continue."

The White House demanded Hezbollah stop "disruptive activities".

"Hezbollah needs to make a choice - be a terrorist organisation or be a political party, but quit trying to be both," Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman, said.

"They need to start playing a constructive role and stop their disruptive activities now."

Unrest began on Wednesday during a general strike, called by the main labour union over price increases and wage demands, which quickly developed into a confrontation between supporters of the government and the opposition.

Protests continued on Thursday, with many roads blocked by barricades of burning tyres.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies