Hezbollah Claims Lebanese Gov't Declares Open War

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) — Hezbollah's leader says a Lebanese government decision to declare the Shiite militant group's telecommunications network illegal amounts to a declaration of war.

The U.S.-backed government on Tuesday declared the military telecommunications network illegal and said it was a threat to state security. The government also said it would dismiss the security chief of the country's only international airport because he was suspected of ties to Hezbollah.

Those Cabinet decisions sparked two days of sectarian clashes between Hezbollah and government supporters.

"The decision is tantamount to a declaration of war ... on the resistance and its weapons in the interest of America and Israel," Hassan Nasrallah said in a news conference aired live on television Thursday.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) — Shiite Muslim supporters of the militant Hezbollah and Sunnis allied with Lebanon's U.S.-backed government clashed for a second day Thursday as sectarian violence in Beirut spilled over to other parts of the country.

The clashes appeared to be a test of wills by the political rivals who have been locked in a 17-month power struggle for control of the government. But there was a risk the violence could degenerate into a wider and deadlier sectarian conflict.

The political crisis exploded into violence Wednesday when supporters of the Hezbollah-led opposition blocked roads in the capital to enforce a strike called by labor unions protesting the government's economic policies and demanding pay raises.

The strike quickly escalated into street confrontations between supporters of the rival camps. About a dozen people were injured, mostly by stones, but no deaths were reported.

On Thursday, the violence spread outside the capital. Sunnis and Shiites exchanged gunfire in the village of Saadnayel in the eastern Bekaa Valley. Four people were injured, said security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.

The area is on a major crossroads linking the Shiite areas of Baalbek, a Hezbollah stronghold, with central Lebanon and Beirut.

Also, supporters of the Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah kept the road to the country's only airport blocked, effectively closing the airport for a second straight day.

Lebanon's national carrier, Middle East Airlines, said it was canceling flights until Thursday afternoon because of the road closures and would reassess the situation later.

The clashes have taken on a sectarian tone, bringing back memories of the devastating 1975-1990 civil war that has left lasting scars on Lebanon.

Most Sunnis support the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. Shiites generally support the opposition led by Hezbollah, a group the U.S. has labeled a terrorist organization. Christians are split between the two.

In Beirut, residents woke up to a new reality, with fresh demarcation lines, burning tires and roadblocks. Both sides geared up for more confrontations.

Some roads in Beirut remained closed and traffic was light in the Muslim section of the city. The army deployed armored carriers on major roads and points of friction in the city. It set up checkpoints and searched vehicles in tense neighborhoods.

In the eastern Bekaa, Sunni supporters of the government closed major roads with burning tires and sporadic stone-throwing and other clashes were reported.

A group in a Sunni area set car tires ablaze to block the road at Masnaa, effectively closing the border crossing with Syria, witnesses said.

The escalation of Lebanon's political crisis into violence raised the specter of a wider sectarian conflict. The Sunnis' spiritual leader denounced Hezbollah and appealed to a largely Sunni Islamic world to intervene.

But it may just be a test of both sides' willingness to compromise in the political standoff.

The rivals have failed to agree on electing a president, leaving the country without a head of state since November.

The Lebanese people will be closely watching a news conference by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah scheduled for later Thursday, and another by Sunni parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri for signs of escalation or hints of willingness to compromise.

Hariri heads the Future movement, whose followers were involved in many of the clashes with Hezbollah supporters.

The latest round of tensions were sparked by the government's decision earlier this week to confront Hezbollah by replacing the Beirut airport security chief for alleged ties to the Shiite militants.

Hezbollah and leaders of the 1.2-million-strong Shiite community, believed to be Lebanon's largest sect, rejected the decisions, and the airport security chief kept his job.

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