Lebanese troops move to clear protesters from streets

Soldiers checked a car in Tripoli, Lebanon, Monday during clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime.
Bilal Hussein/Associated Press
Soldiers checked a car in Tripoli, Lebanon, Monday during clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime.

BEIRUT — The Lebanese military moved forcefully Monday to quell simmering sectarian tensions around the country stoked by a Beirut bombing last week that assassinated a top security official, deploying troops in the areas worst affected and issuing a statement demanding that politicians work to calm their supporters.

‘‘Tension in some areas is increasing to unprecedented levels,’’ read part of a statement issued by Lebanon’s armed forces. ‘‘We are appealing to all leaders from all political factions to be aware about expressing their positions and trying to incite popular opinion.’’

In certain areas where armed protesters had exchanged gunfire with the military overnight, including a southern Beirut quarter adjacent to the main airport road, the army dispatched armored patrols and sought to detain those suspected of fomenting the violence.


Soldiers also moved to separate combatants in two neighborhoods in the northern city of Tripoli where sectarian tensions have repeatedly descended into exchanges of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades since the uprising in neighboring Syria began in March 2011.

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Around the country, the military forces dismantled checkpoints that armed protesters were using to try to identify their sectarian rivals.

Sectarian tensions that have long simmered beneath the surface in Lebanon surged into the open after a large bombing in Beirut on Friday that killed eight people including Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan, the head of the country’s internal security, who was viewed as an opponent of Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, and supporter of the armed insurgents trying to topple him. Assad’s government, which has a history of meddling in Lebanese politics, was widely blamed for the bombing despite its denials.

General Hisham Jabber, a retired military spokesman, said the army, worried about the potential for destabilization, had issued the statement to warn the political class not to exploit the situation.

The army appeared to be showing more resolve in intervening to nip any escalation in the bud. Emotional attacks on the Hezbollah-dominated government during the funeral orations Sunday inspired mourners to try to storm the offices of the prime minister. Opposition leaders later appealed for calm and the demonstrators largely dispersed.


Although the civil war in Syria next door deepened tensions between Lebanon’s Sunni and Shi’ite communities, Lebanon has largely avoided any intensification over the past 19 months that might reignite the civil war that damaged this country from 1975 to 1990.

The ambassadors of Britain, the United States, Russia, China, and France and the UN special coordinator for Lebanon met with President Michel Suleiman on Monday to express support for the efforts to keep the civil war in Syria from spilling into Lebanon.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, said an FBI team was headed to Lebanon to assist the Lebanese government with an investigation into the Friday bombing, which destroyed a street in the heart of Christian east Beirut and was one of the worst attacks here in years.

Toner also said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a telephone call to Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Sunday, had assured him of ‘‘our firm commitment to Lebanon’s stability, its independence, its sovereignty, and its security.’’

Officials fear the assassination of Hassan and the fighting in Syria could upend a fragile political balance in Lebanon, where decades of sectarian fighting has been linked to political and military domination by Damascus.


The massive explosion that killed Hassan injured dozens of civilians in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Achrafieh. One of them was Jennifer Shedid, a 10-year-old girl who lay in a hospital Monday with more than 300 stitches in her body. Her head was shaved and her face was swollen.

Doctors quoted by the AP said Jennifer moved her fingers and started talking Monday for the first time after undergoing several operations to remove the glass from her body and stitch her wounds.