A NORTH-EAST academic has told how he dodged gunmen to escape Lebanon hours before violence broke out.

Christopher Davidson, from Durham University, had to pay a taxi driver, baggage handlers and security guards more than £200 to secure a place on the penultimate flight out of Beirut early on Wednesday.

Hours later, the streets around his hotel were packed with gunmen, as Shia militant group Hezbollah seized most of the west of the capital.

At least 11 people have been killed and dozens injured in three days of violence, prompting fears of a return to civil war.

The Foreign Office has warned Britons against travelling to Lebanon.

Dr Davidson flew out under cover of darkness, boarding the 3.45am flight to Istanbul before returning to the UK.

He said: "It was only when the plane got off the runway that I could relax a bit.

"I'm used to seeing soldiers with guns, but it's never nice to see masked gunmen.

"We set off for the airport about 2.30am. There were no other vehicles on the road. We decided it was now or never - I had to get out.

"I didn't think the situation would escalate as fast as it did."

Dr Davidson, an expert on Lebanon, was in the country doing research, visiting journalists and prospective PhD students.

He cut short the visit - his ninth to the war-torn nation - when he was tipped off violence was looming.

He was also in Lebanon when former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated, in February 2005.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah seized control of key parts of Beirut from Western-backed Sunni rivals yesterday.

As Hezbollah gunmen celebrated in the capital's empty streets, it was clear the action would have wide implications for Lebanon and the entire Middle East.

Lebanon's army largely stood aside as the Shi'ite militiamen scattered their opponents and occupied large parts of the capital's muslim sector.

The army has pledged to keep the peace but not take sides in the long political deadlock that pits Hezbollah and a handful of allies - including some Christian groups - against the Westernbacked government, which includes Christian and Sunni Muslims.

For Beirut residents and those across the region, it was a grim reminder of the troubled time when Beirut was carved into enclaves ruled by rival factions and car bombs and snipers devastated the capital.