Two Killed in Clashes in Lebanon
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Fierce gun battles erupted on the streets of Beirut today. The fighting is said to be some of the worst the city has seen since the Civil War in Lebanon ended in 1990.
Nick Blandford of the Christian Science Monitor joins us now from Beirut.
Nick, who is doing the fighting right now?
Mr. NICHOLAS BLANDFORD (Beirut Correspondent, Christian Science Monitor): Well, it's basically the partisans of Hezbollah, which is a Shiite organization backed by Iran and Syria, and its allies the Amal Movement, which is also another Shiite organization, against the Future Movement, and this is the largest Sunni political party in Lebanon. So, at the moment, it's very much a Shiite-Sunni confrontation. The Christians who are divided between the supporters of the government and supporters of the opposition are staying out of the fighting for now.
NORRIS: And where is the fighting located? It sounds like it's taking place in a fairly tony part of the city.
Mr. BLANDFORD: Well, it began in mixed Tunisian neighborhoods in the center of town. These have been quite volatile spots for sometime. This political crisis, of course, has been still going on for months. And there have been incidents, almost, on a daily basis in these neighborhoods where there's been tense friction between supporters of Hezbollah and Amal against the supporters of the Future Movement. But the fighting began in earnest this evening, early evening, shortly after Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, gave a televised press conference in which he basically declared that the government has effectively declared war on Hezbollah by seeking to dismantle Hezbollah's private telephone network. The moment he's finished his press conference, fighting broke out and it very quickly spread into the other areas of West Beirut.
NORRIS: There's been instability and chaos in Lebanon for some time, there have been other street battles. But why is there the concern or the worry that, in case, it might lead to all-out civil war?
Mr. BLANDFORD: Well, the feeling is that the crisis has been going now for 18 months or so, has come to a head. We've had a political gridlock, and this crisis began over the weekend when a leading pro-government figure, Walid Jumblatt, who's the head of Lebanon's Druze community, leveled some very tough allegations against Hezbollah. These included allegations about the Hezbollah's private telephone network. He accused Hezbollah of monitoring Beirut Airport with security cameras that have possible views of kidnapping people there. And this was followed up, two days later, by the government deciding that Hezbollah's private telephone network was illegal and declaring that they were going to launch an investigation on these allegations of Hezbollah monitoring the airport. Hezbollah reacted extremely angrily. They said that the communications network was part of their resistance against Israel, and had the same status. In other words, that it was untouchable. So, Hezbollah's partisans came out from the streets yesterday as part of a general strike about the protest against increasing prices in Lebanon. But it very swiftly took on a political edge with the Hezbollah's partisans blocking the main roads in Beirut, sealing of the airport. The airport's now barricaded and no flights have been coming in and out since yesterday. And neither side is willing to back down.
NORRIS: Are civilians caught up in the middle of this? What's life like in the city?
Mr. BLANDFORD: Well, life right now has come to a complete halt. Many Lebanese, of course, - this is conjuring up terrible memories of what happened during the 1975-1990 Civil War. And so, everyone is staying at home and there's no traffic out there. I live near a main roads which is normally humming with traffic at this time of the evening, and is completely empty. And the only sound we can actually hear from my apartment is the rattle of machinegun fire and the sound of exploding rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.
NORRIS: Nick, how might this be resolved? Is there a military or a political solution?
Mr. BLANDFORD: There's no military solution. I think everyone accepts that. And in some way, what is happening now is the cathartic relief after 18 months of political gridlock. Now, whether anybody is going to step in - be it an outsider power, be it from the West or an Arab country - to step in and try and enforce some kind of ceasefire, some kind of compromise. We'll have to wait and see. But there doesn't seem to be much international initiative to try and quell the fighting now.
NORRIS: Nick Blandford is the Beirut correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. He's also the author of "Killing Mr. Lebanon."
Nick, thanks so much for talking to us.
Mr. BLANDFORD: you're welcome.
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