BEIRUT, Lebanon - Shiite opposition gunmen seized control of several Beirut neighbourhoods from Sunni foes loyal to the U.S.-backed government on Friday, in street battles that left 11 dead, security officials said.
In a sign of the collapse of the pro-government forces in the face of the onslaught by the Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups in the Lebanese capital's Muslim sector, the TV station of top Sunni politician Saad Hariri's Future Movement was forced off the air.
The offices of the affiliated al-Mustaqbal newspaper in the coastal neighbourhood of Ramlet el-Bayda were also set ablaze by gunmen and white smoke could be seen billowing from the building. The army subsequently took over the area and firefighters extinguished the blaze.
Lebanese troops were also evacuating the staff of the TV station's terrestrial and satellite studios in the Kantari area of western Beirut, said Nadim Mounla, the station's chief. He said gunmen massed near the station and "asked through the army to close down or it will be destroyed."
The army has largely avoided getting involved in the street battles, preferring to remain above the political fray for fear of being dragged into the conflict. The institution could break up on sectarian lines if it takes on Hezbollah's powerful militia or any major party.
A rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the fence of the heavily protected residence of Hariri in the neighbourhood of Koreitem in Muslim western Beirut, security officials said. Hariri is believed to be in the residence.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press, said Friday a total of 11 people have been killed and more than 20 wounded. On Thursday, they had reported four killed and eight wounded, suggesting most of the casualties occurred in clashes overnight.
The crackle of gunfire and occasional explosions continued to reverberate across the western, largely Muslim, sector of the city.
Shiite gunmen roamed unopposed through the deserted streets of neighbourhoods once dominated by supporters of Hariri and the government. Dozens of cars and shops had been damaged by the fighting.
About 100 Hezbollah gunmen in identical camouflage uniforms wearing baseball caps and black flak jackets marched down the Muslim sector's main commercial Hamra Street and took up positions on corners and sidewalks. They stopped the few cars braving the empty streets and checked their trunks.
Dozens of fighters from the Syrian Social Nationalist party, a Hezbollah ally, also appeared in the streets off Hamra, some masked and carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
Shops in the normally bustling commercial district were closed save for a few pharmacies and grocery stores.
"We entered Karakol Druse. There is no Jumblatt and no Hariri here," a Shiite gunman in another Beirut neighbourhood told Associated Press Television News, referring to the top Sunni leader and his ally, Druse leader Walid Jumblatt.
"We entered the neighbourhood. They threw away their weapons and ran," said another gunman as one of his colleagues tore down a poster of Hariri.The scenes were a grim reminder of Lebanon's devastating 1975-90 civil war in which 150,000 were killed and parts of the city wrecked as it was carved into warring sectarian enclaves.
The gunbattles exploded in parts of Beirut Thursday afternoon after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah accused Lebanon's Western-backed government of declaring war on his Shiite militant group.
Hariri went on television later urging Hezbollah to pull its fighters back and "save Lebanon from hell."
The army, which has stayed out of the sectarian political squabbling that has paralyzed the country for more than a year, did not intervene in the battles.
The unrest virtually shut down Lebanon's international airport for a third day and barricades closed major highways. Hezbollah first blocked roads in Beirut on Wednesday to enforce a strike called by labour unions, but confrontations quickly spread across the city.
In his speech, Nasrallah warned against trying to disarm Hezbollah and said his fighters would retaliate swiftly if attacked.
"Those who try to arrest us, we will arrest them. Those who shoot at us, we will shoot at them," Nasrallah said in a news conference via video link from his hiding place.
Later, Hariri made a televised appeal to Nasrallah seeking to calm the conflict.
"My appeal to you and to myself as well, the appeal of all Lebanon, is to stop the slide toward civil war, to stop the language of arms and lawlessness," said Hariri, son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005.
Hariri proposed a compromise that would involve the army, one of the sole national institutions respected by Lebanon's long deadlocked political factions.
Opposition-affiliated television announced late Thursday that Hariri's offer had been rejected and the fighting continued.
The clashes are the latest turn in a test of wills between the Hezbollah-led opposition and the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. The U.S.-backed government has only a slim majority in parliament, and the two sides have been locked in a 17-month power struggle that has kept government at a standstill.
The fight could have implications for the entire Middle East at a time when Sunni-Shiite tensions are high. The tensions are fuelled in part by the rivalry between predominantly Shiite Iran, which sponsors Hezbollah, and Sunni Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.