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Hezbollah militants take over West Beirut

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Written on 1:48 PM by yahoo

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BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- Hezbollah militias took control of western Beirut on Friday, dealing a major blow to the U.S.-backed government in Lebanon.

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Future TV, with a poster of slain leader Rafik Hariri, whose family owns the station, burns Friday in Beirut, Lebanon.

Walid Jumblatt, a Druze leader and part of the March 14 pro-government coalition, described it as a "coup."

Jumblatt's coalition called the takeover an effort to "bring Syria back to Lebanon" and extend Iran's reach to the Mediterranean.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accused Hezbollah leaders of trying to "protect their state within a state."

Hezbollah leaders did not make public statements Friday.

Two pro-government TV stations were shut down -- and the building of one, Future TV, was soon on fire.

Nadim Mounla, the head of Future TV, said Hezbollah had sent a "clear message" that it would destroy the stations.

The building housing offices of a newspaper was set on fire as well. It and the two TV stations are owned by the prominent Hariri family, leading supporters of the government.

Hezbollah "turned their weapons ... toward the hearts of the innocent civilians of Beirut," said Samir Geagea, executive director of the Lebanese forces, reading a statement after a meeting of the pro-government March 14 coalition.

"They invaded their neighborhoods and shelled their homes with a hail of bombs that were sent from Tehran through the Damascus gateway," he said.

"The purpose behind this coup is to bring Syria back to Lebanon and allow Iran to reach the Mediterranean," he said.

Syria and Iran support Hezbollah, and Syrian troops occupied Lebanon from 1990 until 2006.

Iran on Friday said "U.S.-Israel adventurism" is the "main cause for lingering crisis and instability" in Lebanon.

State-run news agency IRNA, citing Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad-Ali Hosseini, added that "Iran's stand on Lebanon has always been based on non-interference in a matter that is entirely related to the Lebanese nation, alone."

And Syria's state-run news agency SANA said President Bashar al-Assad discussed Lebanon during a meeting with Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

"The two sides hoped that the brothers in Lebanon would be able to find a solution to this situation through dialogue among themselves in a way that preserves the security and stability of Lebanon," al-Assad said.

The country's elected, pro-Western government has long been locked in a power struggle with Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called that conflict "a strategic and historic victory" but acknowledged underestimating the cost in lives and destruction.

In public statements and demonstrations in recent years, the Shiite militant group backed by Iran and Syria threatened to use its power and popularity to oust the Sunni-led government, triggering fears of a new civil war that could further destabilize the volatile region.

Lebanon was crippled by a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

Government troops and another militia group, Fatah al-Islam, fought a series of bloody battles last year over control of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. More than 150 people were reported killed in those clashes.

In a written statement, the U.S. secretary of state said the United States is "deeply concerned" about the violence.

"Backed by Syria and Iran, Hezbollah and its allies are killing and injuring fellow citizens, undermining the legitimate authority of the Lebanese government and the institutions of the Lebanese state," Rice wrote.

"Seeking to protect their state within a state, Hezbollah has exploited its allies and demonstrated its contempt for its fellow Lebanese. No one has the right to deprive Lebanese citizens of their political and economic freedom, their right to move freely within their country or their sense of safety and security."

The White House said Rice is reaching out to the Lebanese government. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said she also discussed Lebanon with officials from Saudi Arabia, France and the United Nations.

National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe, at a White House press briefing, said, "We are very troubled by the recent actions of Hezbollah. We urge Hezbollah to stop their attempt to defy the lawful decisions taken by the democratically elected Lebanese government."

The Lebanese army did not join the battles that erupted this week. Taking sides could throw the military -- with its own political factions -- into disarray.

Soldiers instead effectively negotiated a surrender of pro-government positions, Lebanese Internal Security Forces and Western military observers said.

Jumblatt said the government is "now at the end of a gun barrel" and expects the "conditions for surrender will be offered sooner or later."

"I think ... it's a coup," he said in a phone interview. "The Lebanese army is in total paralysis."

With pro-government gunmen out of the way, fighting in the capital eased a bit Friday after two days of intense gunbattles echoing through Beirut's streets.

At least 11 people have been killed and 44 wounded in the clashes since Wednesday, according to Lebanese Internal Security Forces.

Earlier this week, the government demanded Hezbollah shutter its telecommunications operations, which Hezbollah called an act of war. The government also fired the chief of security at the Beirut airport amid a probe of allegations that Hezbollah had installed cameras and other monitoring equipment there to spy on political opponents.

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