Hizbollah fighters impose control on Beirut

Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hizbollah took control of the Muslim part of Beirut today, tightening its grip on the city in a major blow to the US-backed government.

Security sources said at least 11 people had been killed and 30 wounded in three days of battles between pro-government gunmen and fighters loyal to Hizbollah, a Shi'ite political movement with a powerful guerrilla army.

The fighting, the worst internal strife since the 1975-90 civil war, was triggered this week after the government took decisions targeting Hizbollah's military communications network. The group said the government had declared war.

In scenes reminiscent of the darkest days of the civil war, young men armed with assault rifles roamed the streets amid smashed cars and smouldering buildings.

The sound of exploding grenades and automatic gunfire echoed across a city still rebuilding from the 1975-90 conflict.

The dead included a woman and her 30-year-old son, who were killed when trying to flee Ras al-Nabae - a mixed Sunni-Shi'ite Beirut district and scene of some of the heaviest clashes.

"They were trying to flee to the mountains. Instead ... they reached the hospital, dead," said a relative of the victims, who declined to give her name because of security fears.

"It was terrifying during the night. We couldn't even move about in the house," said another woman - a resident of Ras al-Nabae who had fled the area at first light with her children. "We spent the night in the corridor."

Saudi Arabia, a strong backer of the governing coalition, called for an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers over the crisis, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television reported.

A pro-government leader called for dialogue.

"The party, regardless of its military strength, cannot annul the other," Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze minority, told LBC television station from his home in Beirut. "Dialogue alone brings results. Running away from dialogue is not useful."

Hizbollah gunmen took control of media outlets owned by governing coalition leader Saad al-Hariri, Lebanon's strongest Sunni politician. Hariri's television and radio stations went off the air.

Hezbollah, a Shi'ite group also backed by Syria, had been steadily seizing offices of pro-government factions in the predominantly Muslim western half of the city.

Backed by the Shi'ite Amal group, Hezbollah fighters have been handing control of the offices to the army - which is trying to play a neutral role in the crisis.

A security source said Hizbollah and its allies were in control all of the mainly Muslim half of Beirut after pro-government gunmen laid down their weapons in their last bastion.

The gunmen in Tarek al-Jadeedi, a Sunni area whose residents are loyal to Hariri, had been in contact with Hezbollah to surrender, handing their posts to the Lebanese army.

"It certainly leaves the government weaker and the Future movement weaker," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.

"Hizbollah is dominating most of west Beirut."