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[ Monday, 12 May 2008 ]
 
Says it will use force if necessary to stop violations
Lebanon army gives gunmen deadline to disarm
An opposition member during clashes with pro-govt fighters

BEIRUT (Agencies)

Lebanon's army said on Monday it would use force if necessary to impose law and order as of Tuesday, as fierce fighting erupted in northern Lebanon exacerbating tensions and pushing the nation to the brink of a civil war.

"Army units will halt violations... in accordance with the law, even if that leads to the use of force," a military statement said. It said the army would start implementing the order from 6 a.m. (0300 GMT) on Tuesday.

At least one man was killed in clashes between supporters of the Western-backed government and militants loyal to the Shiite Hezbollah-led opposition in the port city of Tripoli, a security official said.

By late afternoon the fighting had died down as the army moved in and appealed to militants to stop fighting and go home.

Lebanon has been rocked by six days of fighting that has left at least 61 people dead and nearly 200 wounded, the worst unrest since the 1974-1990 civil war which has dramatically raised the stakes in a protracted political crisis.

The ruling Sunni-led majority vowed it would not negotiate with Hezbollah at gunpoint, as Arab ministers prepared to send a team to try to end a feud which some fear could engulf other parts of the volatile region.

Sunni Islamist groups in Tripoli on Sunday had declared they were launching their own resistance there, where one woman was killed in weekend fighting.

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Calm over Beirut

The destroyer USS Cole passed through the Suez Canal to the eastern Mediterranean on Sunday. The ship deployed off Lebanon in February as a show of support to Siniora's government.

A precarious calm prevailed in Beirut, where politicians prepared to meet Arab League mediators.

"What has been happening is negotiations by fire," a political source said. "Now everyone is waiting for the Arab committee to come for the political negotiations to start."

So far such Western and Saudi support has done nothing to deter Hezbollah from exposing the military weakness of its foes, such as Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri and Druze chief Walid Jumblatt, whose mountain fiefdom was attacked on Sunday.

One source said 14 Hezbollah fighters were among the dead in those battles. Hezbollah-led forces overran several posts held by Jumblatt's gunmen in the Aley district east of Beirut before the Druze leader agreed to hand them over to the army.

Swallowing his pride, Jumblatt had authorized Talal Arsalan, a rival Syrian-backed Druze leader, to mediate with Hezbollah. Arsalan said Jumblatt's men had handed over most of their offices and strongholds in Aley to the army, but said he was still waiting for them to turn in heavy weapons and arms depots.

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Electing a president

While Hariri, Jumblatt and their Christian allies have retracted the moves that sparked Hezbollah's reaction -- outlawing its communications network and sacking the airport security chief -- they have yet to concede political ground.

For 18 months, the government has resisted opposition demands for veto rights in cabinet, although Hezbollah has now shown it has the military muscle to veto decisions it dislikes.

The political turmoil has paralyzed state institutions and left Lebanon without a president since November.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters that the situation was "very fragile" and militias had to stop using force and allow for the election of a president.

"The real goal must be here to get a president elected in Lebanon. There is, of course, a consensus candidate. All of those who are interfering with his election should step aside and let it take place," said Rice.

Lebanese officials said they expected a Qatari-led Arab mission, formed at an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on Sunday, to arrive in Beirut on Wednesday.

The Arab mediators will try to quell the violence and tackle the political crisis by securing the election of army commander General Michel Suleiman as president, the officials said.

Both sides had agreed on Suleiman as president but could not strike a deal over a new government and a law for next year's parliamentary election. Hezbollah's grab for strategic locations has increased pressure on the government to accept its terms.

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