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BEIRUT: Lebanese troops deployed in Sunni areas of the capital yesterday as fresh sectarian violence erupted, stoking stability fears after a top security official was killed in a bombing blamed on neighbouring Syria.
The army said it was determined to restore order, with the northern port of Tripoli also shaken by fighting between partisans and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad that killed seven people.
In the afternoon, personnel carriers entered Beirut’s Sunni district of Tariq Jdideh, which had been a hotspot all day, and soldiers took up position on streets leading into it to keep them open, a military spokesman said.
Six people were wounded when the army made a pre-dawn sweep of Tariq Jdideh in pursuit of armed men, and automatic weapons and anti-tank rocket fire could be heard.
Later, soldiers responded after being fired on as they tried to clear a road into the district, a stronghold of opposition leader Saad Hariri whose supporters had blocked it despite calls by the former premier to stay off the streets.
The army spokesman said a 20-year-old Palestinian, Ahmad Quaider, was shot after firing at an army patrol.
In Tripoli, a Sunni bastion where opposition to Assad is strong, seven people were killed and 12 wounded during clashes between Sunnis and Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam to which the Syrian president belongs, security sources said.
Two Alawites and five Sunnis died.
The same sources reported snipers in the city late yesterday.
Clashes have erupted regularly in Tripoli as tensions spill over the border from Syria, where a 19-month-old anti-regime revolt has left more than 34,000 people dead.
Lebanon has been on edge since Friday, when police intelligence chief General Wissam Al Hassan died in the Beirut bombing.
The attack sparked immediate calls for Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose cabinet is dominated by Damascus ally Hezbollah, to resign.
Hezbollah’s militia, which never disarmed after the 1975-90 civil war, is the most powerful military force in Lebanon.
A statement from the army high command said it is “committed to its role of stopping security breaches and maintaining civil order.
“Recent developments prove decidedly that the country is going through a critical time, 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 military also appealed to all political forces to be wary of their words and any calls for mobilisation, “because the fate of the nation is at stake.”
Lebanon is a multi-faith country in which Christians, Shia and Sunni Muslims each make up about one-third of the population.
It has a complex but unwritten arrangement under which the president must be a Maronite Christian, the premier a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shia.
Hariri, a former premier who heads the parliamentary opposition, said he was determined to oust Mikati’s government “by peaceful and democratic means.”
Sunnis are furious over the perceived Syrian assassination of Hassan, also a Sunni, who was noted for pursuing alleged Syrian crimes in Lebanon, including the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father, Rafiq.
The funeral for Hassan, who was intelligence chief of the Internal Security Forces and a strong Assad opponent, had been billed as an opportunity to protest against Syrian meddling in Lebanon but the mood quickly turned to fury at Mikati.
Former premier Fouad Siniora called on Mikati to resign, adding his voice to many others since Hassan and two others were killed and 126 wounded. Siniora said the “government is responsible for the crime that killed Wissam... That is why he must go.”
Mikati said on Saturday he would stay, at President Michel Sleiman’s request, to avoid a “political vacuum” in the volatile country.
Following the funeral, a few hundred young men tried to storm the Serail, the seat of government, but were driven back by police firing in the air and using tear gas.
Later, Hariri appealed to his supporters “to stay off the streets, because we want to oust this government by peaceful and democratic means.”
Lebanese university professor Ghassan al-Azzi said Hariri is focusing his political fire on Mikati, rather than taking Hezbollah head on, because “if you take Hezbollah on directly, it means without a doubt that you are in favour of civil war.”
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 UN Security Council’s permanent members met Sleiman and condemned any attempt to destabilise the situation and called for national unity. AFP