Violence grips Lebanese city as peace talks loom

Pro-government Sunni Muslim gunmen and militiamen loyal to Lebanon's Iranian-backed Shia Hizbollah have fought with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades in the northern city of Tripoli.

Security sources said six people were wounded when Sunni government supporters in Tripoli's Bab Tebbaneh district exchanged machine gun and grenade fire with Alawite militiamen allied to Hizbollah in the nearby Jebel Mohsen area.

Hizbollah and its pro-Syrian allies have swept through Beirut and hills to the east, defeating loyalists of the US-backed government before handing its conquests to the Lebanese army, which has stayed out of the fighting. Hizbollah's success has dealt a severe blow to the ruling Sunni-led coalition, led by Saad al-Hariri, in what is widely seen as a proxy confrontation between Iran and the United States.

At least 36 people had been killed in fighting on Sunday between Hizbollah and its pro-government Druze opponents east of Beirut. Hizbollah-led forces overran several posts held by gunmen loyal to Walid Jumblatt in the Aley district before the Druze leader agreed to hand them over to the army. Mr Jumblatt had authorised Talal Arsalan, a rival Syrian-backed Druze leader, to mediate with Hizbollah.

The latest fighting in Lebanon, which began on 7 May, has left 81 people dead and 250 wounded.

A precarious calm prevailed in Beirut, where politicians prepared to meet Arab League mediators. "What has been happening is negotiations by fire," said a political source. "Now everyone is waiting for the Arab committee to come for the political negotiations to start."

Lebanese officials said they expected the Qatari-led Arab mission to arrive in Beirut tomorrow. The mission, which both camps in Lebanon have welcomed, is to hold separate talks with rival leaders to broker an immediate end to the violence and direct talks between them. The Arab mediators would also try to secure the election of General Michel Suleiman as president.