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Fighting Spreads to Mountains Near Beirut

Fighting between pro-government and opposition militants in Lebanon has spread to the mountains overlooking the capital, prompting the country's main Druze leader Walid Jumblatt to appeal to the army to intervene. The violence has killed at least 38 people so far, in the worst internal fighting since the end of Lebanon's 15-year civil war. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Beirut.

Fighting spread Sunday to at least five towns in the mountains east of Beirut, where supporters of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt battled with Shiite militias in the afternoon. Heavy bouts of automatic weapons fire and occasional explosions of rocket-propelled grenades could be heard echoing through the valley below. Black smoke could be seen rising from the area as dusk fell.

In an interview with the privately owned LBC television station, Jumblatt implied that he was asking his supporters to stop fighting and cede control of the area to the army.

He said he consulted with Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, a key opposition leader, and delegated the task of negotiating a ceasefire to his political rival Talal Erslan, "to stop the bloodshed and destruction."

The move is seen as a sign of how hard the government has been hit by the crisis. Jumblatt heads Lebanon's largest Druze faction and is a key figure in the ruling March 14 coalition, which holds a slim majority in parliament. Erslan is leader of another Druze party allied with the opposition.

In nationally televised remarks shortly afterward, Erslan called on opposition fighters to cease fire.

He said he and Jumblatt had agreed, along with Hezbollah and other opposition parties, that the mountain areas and all weapons found there would be turned over to the Lebanese army.

Earlier in the day, sporadic clashes broke out in the eastern Bekaa Valley, near the Syrian border. Heavy fighting raged in the northern city of Tripoli early Sunday morning but died down by sunrise. Men armed with assault rifles were among a group of government supporters barricading the border crossing into Syria at Masnaa, blocking vehicle traffic and questioning people entering Lebanon on foot.

Streets of the capital were nearly deserted after four days of clashes, especially West Beirut where the fighting had been centered.

Hezbollah and its Shiite allies from the Amal Movement on Sunday withdrew their fighters from the streets of West Beirut, turning most of the area over to the Lebanese army. Roadblocks remained throughout the city, some guarded by the army and others by teenagers and young men apparently allied with one of the opposition factions.

Some gunmen could be seen in a few areas, including near the charred remains of a building that formerly belonged to the Future Television station owned by parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri.

Outside, men from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, a small opposition group, patrolled the streets carrying walkie-talkies. One of them, who gave his name only as Aziz, said he was not sure what to expect next.

He says, "We will see. The leaders are negotiating." He adds that he is not afraid of more fighting. Nodding in the direction of Saad Hariri's residence, he says, "Qoraitem is near… Hariri is there. We could take it."

A newspaper owned by Hariri was set on fire as opposition fighters took over West Beirut on Friday.

The factional fighting erupted Wednesday after the government threatened to shut down Hezbollah's private telecommunications system and its electronic surveillance network at Beirut's international airport. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called the decision a declaration of war.

Hezbollah and most of the other opposition parties withdrew their fighters from the streets after the army reversed the government's decisions and reinstated the airport's head of security.

It is the worst outbreak of internal fighting since Lebanon's 15-year civil war ended in 1990. It comes amid a political standoff between the opposition, led by Hezbollah, and the pro-Western government, which has dragged on for a year and a half and has left the country without a president since November.

The Arab League on Sunday condemned what it called the use of armed violence to achieve political goals, implicitly blaming Hezbollah for the crisis that has threatened to plunge the country back into civil war.