Violence flares in Beirut as army calls for ‘order’
A picture of al-Hassan is seen near Lebanon’s army soldiers deployed in an area where clashes took place in Beirut. REUTERS photoLebanese troops and gunmen exchanged fire in a Sunni district of Beirut yesterday, raising fears that Lebanon could become engulfed in sectarian violence, following the murder of a top security official blamed on Syria.
The army promptly said it was determined to restore order in Lebanon, with the northern port of Tripoli shaken by fighting between partisans and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that killed six people. Troops launched a major security operation to open all roads and force gunmen off the streets.
The country has been on edge since Oct. 19, when police intelligence chief Gen. Wissam al-Hassan died in a Beirut car bombing. That immediately prompted calls for Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose Cabinet is dominated by Damascus ally Hezbollah, to resign.
In the Lebanese capital, soldiers backed by armored personal carriers with heavy machine guns took up position on major thoroughfares and dismantled roadblocks. At times, troops exchanged gunfire with Sunni gunmen.
Fighting in Beirut occurred on the edge of Tariq al-Jadida, a Sunni Muslim district that abuts Shiite Muslim suburbs in the south of the capital. Soldiers killed one gunman in Tariq al-Jadida, the army said. The army is “committed to its role of stopping security breaches and maintaining civil order,” a statement from the high command said. “Recent developments prove decidedly that the country is going through a critical period, and the level of tension in some areas has reached unprecedented levels,” it said.
It will take “resolute measures, particularly in areas of mounting sectarian friction ... to prevent the assassination of martyred General Wissam al-Hassan from being exploited as an opportunity to murder the nation as a whole,” the statement continued. The military also appealed to all political forces to be careful about their words and any calls for mobilization, “because the fate of the nation is at stake.”
Lebanon has a complex but unwritten arrangement, under which the president must always be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, and the speaker of Parliament a Shiite. Clashes between Sunni and Shiite gunmen in Beirut in 2008 brought Lebanon close to the brink of a new civil war.
Amid fears Lebanon will be further affected by the conflict in Syria, the envoys to Beirut of the U.N. Security Council’s permanent members met President Michel Suleiman and condemned any attempt to destabilize the situation and called for national unity.