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Rival Shiite militias battle in Beirut

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Syrian-backed Amal militiamen exchanged machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades with gunmen of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah in an eighth day of fighting that spread into Moslem west Beirut, police said Saturday.

Police said the fighting ended when Syrian troops moved into the two Beirut neighborhoods late Friday night. There were no reported casualties.

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The latest round of violence between the rival Shiite Moslem militias, which broke out eight days ago, occurred despite an appeal by Iranian President Ali Khamenei for a halt to the fighting, radio stations reported.

The radio stations quoted Khamenei in Friday's prayers in Tehran 'calling on Amal and Hezbollah to end the fighting among them,' describing the rift between the rival Shiite Moslem factions as 'unnatural and a fruit of a conspiracy.'

Police said the militiamen on both sides used machine guns and rocket propelled grenades in the fighting in the Syrian-controlled downtown and Khandak Al Ghamik neighborhoods, two hotly contested sectors of west Beirut during the 14-year civil war in Lebanon.

Steel-helmeted Syrian troops moved in about midnight and quelled the three-hour clash, which each group blamed on the other.

The Amal-Hezbollah clashes in west Beirut came after week-long fighting between the two groups in southern Lebanon and Beirut's suburbs.

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The fighting started Dec. 31 in the southern suburbs of Beirut and spread to Iklim Al Tofah, 28 miles south of the capital on Monday.

A Syrian-mediated cease-fire halted the fighting in the suburbs three days later, but tension remained high in the Iklim Al Tofah and skirmishes are still reported.

At least 24 people were killed and 61 others wounded in the eight days of fighting.

Iran, hoping to export its Islamic fundamental revolution, started to establish a foothold in Lebanon in 1982 by forming Hezbollah, or party of God. Syria has backed Amal, a more moderate group.

The Amal-Hezbollah armed confrontations broke out last April when Amal crushed Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon.

Hezbollah responded by driving Amal from most Beirut suburbs in May in fierce battles that prompted Damascus to deploy 7,000 troops to the slums of the Lebanese capital.

According to police estimates, more than 450 people have been killed in the 10-month-old conflict.

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