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Lebanese Cabinet Reverses Anti-Hezbollah Decisions That Sparked Fighting

Lebanon's government has reversed two anti-Hezbollah decisions that set off a week of sectarian clashes that left roughly 60 people dead and more than 200 wounded. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Beirut.

Celebratory gunfire erupted from opposition strongholds in Beirut almost immediately after the announcement that the government was revoking the two decisions that led to the worst sectarian fighting since the end of Lebanon's civil war.

Information Minister Ghazi Al-Aridi read a statement saying the cabinet had decided to agree with the army commander's decision and reverse the two government decisions that sparked the crisis.

The fighting had erupted about a week earlier, after the government said it would shut down Hezbollah's private telecommunications network and replace the airport security chief, a Hezbollah ally.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said he considered it a declaration of war and sent his fighters into the streets. Clashes erupted between Sunnis and Shiites in Beirut and then spread to other sects in the mountains and the north. By Friday, fighters from Hezbollah and its allies had taken over most of the pro-government Sunni neighborhoods in West Beirut. The violence subsided over the last few days as the Shi'ite militias turned control of the areas over to the Lebanese army.

The clashes killed roughly 60 people. Aridi said the cabinet was reversing its decisions in the higher national interest.

Although the move was widely expected, it was apparently not an easy vote; the cabinet meeting went on for more than five hours before the announcement was made.

Shortly after the announcement, celebratory gunfire erupted from opposition strongholds in Beirut, where the decision was seen as a victory. The opposition had been demanding the reversal as a condition for removing the roadblocks that have essentially shut down Beirut's international airport. But it was not clear whether the decision alone would be enough to end what Hezbollah calls its campaign of civil disobedience.

Analysts say the fighting was the product not just of the two decisions, but of the political crisis that has engulfed Lebanon over the last year and a half. Opposition protesters have been camped outside the prime minister's office, six opposition cabinet ministers quit their posts, parliament has barely met since 2006, and Lebanon has not had a president since November.

The opposition has been demanding a government of national unity that gives Hezbollah and its allies enough cabinet posts to wield a veto over any decisions.

Political analyst Patrick Haenni of the International Crisis Group says since the fighting broke out, Hezbollah has confined its demands to the reversal of the two government decisions. "At the same time, you have temptation by Hezbollah allies to capitalize on its military action in broader political terms, meaning extending their vindications to the second level of the crisis, which is political participation, government, president, electoral law and things like this," he said.

Arab League mediators have been in Beirut trying to mediate an end to the crisis. Opposition sources indicated that the talks would continue on Thursday in an effort to re-start negotiations between the two sides.