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Hezbollah phone network spat sparks Beirut street war

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Thursday that the pro-Western government has declared 'war' on his militant group.

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Tense: People walked past Shiite opposition gunmen Thursday on a street in Beirut as Iranian-backed Hizbullah militants tightened their grip on the Beirut airport.

Fadi Ghalioum/Reuters

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A sudden flare-up of street violence in Beirut appears to have broken an 18-month political impasse between the Western-backed government and the opposition, led by the militant Shiite Hezbollah

With armed gunmen roaming the streets of the Lebanese capital, districts sealed by burning barricades, and Beirut airport blockaded, a potentially climactic struggle has begun over the future identity of this tiny Mediterranean country.

"This is a turning point. There can be no more cohabitation between the government and the opposition. All trust is gone," says Amal Saad Ghorayeb, a Lebanese political analyst and expert on Hezbollah "The state is going to be the focus of the struggle, symbolically and practically as well."

The showdown was triggered by a dispute over Hezbollah's private telephone network, with the government declaring the network illegal earlier this week.

"The decision is tantamount to a declaration of war ... on the resistance and its weapons in the interest of America and Israel," said Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in a news conference aired live on television Thursday. "Those who try to arrest us, we will arrest them. Those who shoot at us, we will shoot at them. The hand raised against us, we will cut it off."

Coming days are crucial

The coming days could decide which vision of Lebanon ultimately triumphs – a liberal, Western-friendly, free-market economy and tourist hub catering to wealthy Arabs; or a key component of a regional alliance that seeks to confront Israel and thwart Western influence in the Middle East.

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