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In Beirut, gunfire and thunder make for an eerie mixture

By Irina Prentice

BEIRUT – By Friday afternoon, the street battles which have flared across Beirut over the last three days seemed to have abated somewhat, though sporadic gunfire could still be heard in different areas of the city.

During these tense 72 hours, mostly Shiite Hezbollah and Amal gunmen managed to seize nearly all of the Lebanese capital's Sunni Muslim sector from foes loyal to the U.S.-backed government. At least 11 people have been killed and more than 20 wounded in the armed conflict between the Iranian and Syrian backed Hezbollah fighters and gunmen loyal to the government.

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SLIDESHOW: Fighting roils Beirut

Beirut, perched between the sparkling Mediterranean and a green mountain range, has been badly shaken by the violence – the worst sectarian clashes the country has seen since the 15-year civil war from 1975-1990. The skirmishes echo off the mountains, amplifying the sound of explosions as they occur.

Throughout Thursday night, heavy fighting took place, with machine gun fire, rocket-propelled grenades and pistol shots making sleep almost impossible for most residents. Compounding the magnitude of the sound was a thunderstorm, which unexpectedly erupted in the same way the armed conflict had a few hours earlier.

"The thunderstorm… eerie timing" said Hanna Defuria, visiting her sister who just moved to Beirut two weeks ago. "It was hard to tell what was thunder and what were gunshots, but when the storm passed there were no gunshots."

Added Laura Defuria, Hanna's sister: "Amazingly, I don't feel unsafe. Maybe it is because I am new to the situation, but I feel like it is far away although it is very close."

The sisters are indeed close to the action – they are staying in an apartment on the same street where Saad Hariri, one of Lebanon's top Sunni lawmakers, lives. Head of the Future Movement and deputy in the parliament, Hariri's residence suffered damage from a rocket-propelled grenade, and the television station and newspaper affiliated with his political party were attacked and ransacked.

Waking up to pock-marked streets 

The Beirut residents who actually managed to sleep during the night woke up to television images displaying empty streets patrolled by armed militiamen. Damage displayed on the news varied from pockmarked storefronts to shot-up cars parked in the street. 

A U.S. citizen studying at the American University of Beirut said "that bullets whizzed by my place in the night." A little shook up, he commented on the relaxing atmosphere in mostly Christian East Beirut, which had remained mostly free of violence.

Meantime, Joe, a supporter of the Hezbollah opposition, expressed his pleasure at the turn of events. (Like most people I spoke to, he asked that his last name not be used because of the volatility of the situation.)

"Look, it is time that there is a change in the government," he said. "They have been robbing the country blind, and this is simply unacceptable." According to him, Hezbollah is only doing what is best for Lebanon, and will pull back once a change in the government takes place.

But supporters of the current government are fearful that a forceful change of guard of the government will lead to a Shiite takeover, and lead to an invitation for Syria's return. "The situation is not good," said Anthony, a supporter of the current government led by Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. "Stay home today if you can."

Hunkering down

Not knowing what to expect, Beirutis in the Christian neighborhood of Achrafiye piled into a nearby supermarket to stock up on provisions for the next few days. Fresh produce shelves were emptied by mid-day and there were long lines at the checkout counter.

Gas stations also experienced increased activity. "Things are calm, but if they get bad again … I will take my family to the mountains," said one driver.

Although the atmosphere seemed to have calmed by Friday afternoon, most people seemed to be staying indoors and watching the situation carefully – walking in the quiet streets you can hear the sound of television reports drifting out of open windows.

"We are all on standby," said a man named Mustafa who, like many others, had been following the news all day.

For more information click here: Q & A: What's happening in Lebanon? NBC News' Richard Engel explains the issues behind the battles in Beirut

Irina Prentice is a freelance journalist in Beirut working with NBC News.