Lebanon on Edge
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|Bernard Banks||October 22nd 2012|
Beirut exploded into violence on Sunday following a public funeral for the country's intelligence chief, whose murder has been widely blamed on Syria and its proxy militia Hezbollah.
Wissam al-Hassan was killed in a massive explosion on Friday that also killed eight others. He is believed to have been targeted because he helped finger Syria and Hezbollah as responsible for the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who also opposed Syria and Hezbollah.
Current Prime Minister Najib Mikati heads a government dominated by Hezbollah, which many see as little more than a Syria-controlled puppet government. Following al-Hassan's funeral, thousands of protesters advanced on Mikati's offices, demanding the government resign and justice be done on al-Hassan's murderers.
"The Syrian regime started a war against us and we will fight this battle until the end," said a Christian protester." While another said that al-Hassan "was killed while he was defending his country." The protests quickly got out of hand, with police setting up barricades and firing tear gas to control the crowd. The protesters retreated but refused to vacate, saying they will stay in Beirut until their demands are met. Serious violence involving gunfire and grenades has already broken out elsewhere in Lebanon. With Syria involved in a brutal civil war of its own, Hezbollah may now quickly find itself in a very dangerous position.
The Lebanese army promised decisive action to quell unrest linked to the Syria conflict as gunbattles flared in the capital Beirut and elsewhere on Monday following the assassination of a senior intelligence officer last week. The army command urged political leaders to be cautious in their public statements so as not to inflame passions further. It issued the warning after troops and gunmen exchanged fire in Beirut's southern suburbs on Monday morning, wounding five people, while protesters blocked roads with burning tires.
Al Arabiya reported: In the northern city of Tripoli, four people were killed, including a 9-year-old girl, and 12 people were wounded in clashes overnight and in the morning, security and medical sources said. The violence heightened fears that the civil war in Syria next door was spreading into Lebanon, upsetting its delicate political balance and threatening to usher in a new era of bloodshed between Lebanese allies and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad. Lebanon has been boiling since Friday after Brigadier-General Wissam al-Hassan, an intelligence chief opposed to the Syrian leadership, was assassinated in a car bombing. Many politicians have accused Syria of being behind the killing and angry protesters tried to storm the government palace after Hassan's funeral on Sunday.
Opposition leaders want Prime Minister Najib Mikati to resign, saying he is too close to Assad and his Lebanese terrorist ally Hezbollah, which is part of Mikati's government. On Sunday night, gunmen armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades exchanged fire in southern districts of Beirut, security sources said, and residents could hear the sound of ambulance sirens. Interior Minister Marwan Charbel called Sunday’s events “an emotional reaction” to Friday’s assassination of Brig. Gen. Hassan, who was killed by a car bomb in the Ashrafiyeh neighborhood of Beirut. “This is an emotional reaction to the martyrdom [of Hassan] ... God willing tomorrow [Monday] everything will be over,” he was quoted as saying by the The Daily Star.
Charbel said that the ISF and the Lebanese Army are taking the appropriate measures to address the situation. “They are arresting anyone carrying arms and referring them to the judiciary, and they are re-opening all blocked roads,” Charbel said. Meanwhile, gunmen in Tripoli opened fire in the air after Akkar Mufti Sheikh Ossama Rifai delivered a fiery speech during Hassan’s funeral, killing a 15-year-old resident of Jabal Mohsen, Rola Fakhro, the Lebanese daily reported.
This sparked armed clashes between supporters of Assad in Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh, whose residents tend to support the uprising against Assad. According to The Daily Star, 9-year-old Jana Kamaleddine of Riva was killed during the exchange of gunfire and RPGs, as was Jabal Mohsen resident Adnan Dawoud. Nayef Khalil, a Palestinian refugee from the outskirts of the Beddawi refugee camp, was wounded. Clashes intensified and bullets reached the highway that connects Tripoli to Akkar. Tripoli was the scene of previous clashes between Sunnis and Alawites sympathetic to different sides in the Syria war. Opposition leader Saad al-Hariri urged supporters to refrain from any more violence.
“We want peace, the government should fall but we want that in a peaceful way. I call on all those who are in the streets to pull back,” Hariri said on the Future Television channel. The violence broke out after Fouad al-Siniora, a former prime minister, said the opposition rejected any dialogue to overcome the political crisis caused by Hassan's killing unless the government first resigned. “No talks before the government leaves, no dialogue over the blood of our martyrs,” Siniora said to roars of approval from the crowd. Despite calls for him to quit, Mikati has said he will stay on, at President Michel Sleiman’s request, to avoid a “political vacuum” in volatile Lebanon, according to AFP. The opposition has widely blamed Assad for Friday’s attack in the mostly Christian district of Ashrafieh. also holds him responsible for the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father, ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, killed in a huge Beirut blast.
A banner on Sunday proclaimed “Two states, one revolution,” an allusion to the 19-month rebellion in Syria that has cost more than 34,000 lives.
Esewhere, young men angered by Hassan’s murder, some of them armed, cut off roads in the central Bekaa valley and along the coastal highway to south Lebanon. Earlier, Martyrs’ Square was dotted with huge billboards praising Hassan and calling him “a martyr for truth and justice.”Many people carried the flags of Lebanon and Hariri’s Future movement, while some waved the Syrian revolutionary flag. Tamam Ali, a 27-year-old Future activist, warned: “It’s not just today. We were here yesterday and we'll be here tomorrow and in the future.”
Mikati has linked Hassan’s murder to evidence implicating former minister Michel Samaha, arrested in August. Samaha is suspected of planning attacks to provoke sectarian strife in Lebanon at Syria’s behest. The ISF played a key role in that investigation. The United States, which has condemned Hassan’s assassination, on Sunday offered its help in the search for his killers. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke by phone with Mikati, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.