- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 25, 2010

BEIRUT (AP) — The most serious fighting in Beirut since 2008 appears to have been touched off by a traffic dispute that escalated into deadly, hours-long street battles between the Shi’ite Hezbollah group and a small Sunni faction, witnesses said Wednesday.

Security officials said three Hezbollah members and a follower of the conservative Sunni al-Ahbash group were killed Tuesday night in the Bourj Abu Haider district, just outside Beirut’s downtown, in running battles with fighters wielding assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

The state news agency also said four people died, although the army put the death toll at three.

It was not clear why the fighting intensified so dramatically, but tensions among the Sunni and Shi’ite communities have been running high recently amid reports that Hezbollah members will be indicted in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, once the country’s top Sunni politician.

Abdul Qadir al-Fakhani, a spokesman for al-Ahbash, said his group was meeting with Hezbollah and the Lebanese army on Wednesday to ensure the situation does not flare up again.

Mr. Al-Fakhani and several other witnesses said there was a commotion outside the Bourj Abu Haider mosque about 20 minutes before the gunbattles began, with men fighting over a car.

“They were shouting and yelling insults at each other,” Mr. al-Fakhani told the Associated Press. “Then a group from Hezbollah approached the mosque, and they just kept coming. We were astonished,” he said.

Within some 20 minutes, both sides apparently gathered reinforcements and the street battles began.

Hezbollah did not comment beyond a joint statement issued by the two groups late Tuesday saying the incident resulted from a “personal dispute and has no political or sectarian background.”

On Wednesday morning, cleaning crews were sweeping the chunks of concrete that had been blown off the mosque by bullets and grenades. At least one gunman holding an AK-47 assault rifle had taken up position in a building across from the mosque.

Two other witnesses and a Lebanese soldier — all of whom asked that their names not be used because of the sensitivity of the matter — independently corroborated Mr. al-Fakhani’s account of a traffic dispute preceding the violence. Local media also reported similar witness accounts.

The fighting was the worst clash in Beirut since May 2008, when Hezbollah gunmen swept through Sunni neighborhoods after the pro-Western government tried to dismantle the group’s telecommunications network.

More than 80 people were killed in the 2008 violence, pushing the country to the brink of civil war. But officials insisted Tuesday’s clash was not the same sectarian strife that has bedeviled Lebanon for decades.

More than 1,500 people took part in funerals for the victims on Wednesday.

In the southern village of Kfar Fila, some 1,000 people attended the burial of Hezbollah official Ali al-Jawad. Hezbollah members in black uniforms and red berets carried the coffin, wrapped in a yellow Hezbollah flag, on their shoulders.

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