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New Violence in Lebanon Resembles Civil War Days

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Lebanon is a country that hoped to never again find itself in the grip of a civil war after its 15-year-long civil war came to and end back in 1990. Today it's staring at that very possibility. There's fighting on the streets in Beirut, the capital, the worst since the end of its war. Hezbollah gunmen are now in control of most of the Muslim part of Beirut. We go now to NPR's Deborah Amos, who was there. Good morning.

DEBORAH AMOS: Good morning.

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MONTAGNE: What is going on where you are?

AMOS: So we've had mixed reports of this is over and it's not.

MONTAGNE: As you've indicated, Deb, this fighting has been going on for days. What triggered it?

AMOS: The trigger was a phone network. The government accused Hezbollah of having a private telephone network that goes from the south of Beirut to the south of the country, and they said it was illegal and they wanted Hezbollah to take it down. Hezbollah said no, this is part of our right to have weapons in the country to fight Israel, and the phone line is part of it.

AMOS: This is Hezbollah, in a sense, versus the government, but how much of it is also Hezbollah Shiite versus Sunni?

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AMOS: You know, both sides want to say that that's not what it's about, and Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, made leader clear that this is not a sectarian war, but once you look on the streets, it is. It's really hard to say that it's not, which is dangerous here and in the region. You know, Iraq has helped to open that schism between the two sects of Islam, and so it does get fought out in those terms here. I think both sides would rather it not be that way, but unfortunately it is.

MONTAGNE: And what is being done to end this fighting? There is an army, of course, in Lebanon. What is it doing?

AMOS: The army has tried to stay neutral. It is the only institution in the country besides the central bank that is still functioning, and if it took sides in this conflict, it might split apart, because the army is made up of all of Lebanon.

MONTAGNE: Just briefly, Deb, civil war - you know, what's the feeling there?

AMOS: And neither side is giving the other a graceful way out. They have been fighting verbally for, you know, more than 18 months. Remember, there hasn't been a president here for almost six months. There hasn't been a full cabinet for more than a year and a half. Parliament hasn't met (unintelligible) votes to try and find a president. All of those things add to the tension here. And it feels like a very dark time. Whether they go back to a civil war I can't tell you, because it's hard to say on a day like this.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Deborah Amos speaking from Beirut. Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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