BEIRUT: Haunted by fears of more car bombings in Beirut and the specter of a looming U.S.-led military strike on Syria, Lebanese officials scrambled Thursday to calm jittery citizens by taking a series of measures aimed at beefing up security in the capital.
Meanwhile, caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said exceptional security measures had been taken to ensure that flights at Beirut airport would not be disrupted in the event of a Western attack on Syria.
He also denied that any Arab or foreign airlines had canceled or suspended flights to Beirut because of growing concerns over security in Lebanon after the United States and its allies stepped up warnings that they could launch a punitive military strike against Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians.
“No Arab or foreign airline companies have canceled their flights to Beirut airport. Only Air France has informed us that they do not want their crewmembers to sleep in Beirut,” Charbel told The Daily Star.
In a statement later issued by his media office, Charbel said some foreign airline companies had only altered the timing of their flights rather than canceling them.
Charbel’s remarks came as media reports surfaced that British Airways, Cyprus Airways and Air France were suspending their night flights into Lebanon for at least two months.
British Airways denied it was suspending flights, telling The Daily Star that “its operations were still normal.”
Air France has modified the timing of one of its two daily return flights between Paris and Beirut, a spokeswoman told Agence France Presse.
“ Air France has changed its flight schedule to and from Beirut,” she said, adding the move followed developments in the Middle East.
An operator working for Cyprus Airways told The Daily Star the carrier would suspend night flights into Beirut airport and all Wednesday flights.A source at Beirut airport said Cyprus Airways decided to change the time of its night flights and cancel its Wednesday flights until further notice.
Cyprus Airways flights used to arrive in Beirut at 9 p.m. and depart the next day at 7 a.m.
The new measures will see flights arriving at 6 a.m. and departing an hour later, with no night stops, the source said.
Caretaker Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridi could not be reached for comment on security at Beirut airport and the status of foreign airliners in light of an anticipated fallout from any assault against Syria on Lebanon’s security and stability, already jolted by the repercussions of the war in the neighboring country and fears of a new wave of car bombings.
However, Charbel was confident that work and flights at Beirut airport would not be disrupted even in the event of a Western attack on Syria.
“Everything is proceeding as normal at the airport. Security measures have been taken to ensure that work will not be affected at the airport if Syria is attacked,” Charbel told The Daily Star.
But he cautioned that any possible Israeli attack on Lebanon – a follow-up to a U.S.-led strike on Syria – might disrupt air traffic at Beirut airport. “If Israel attacks Lebanon, we will act accordingly,” Charbel said.
Fears of a negative fallout from any Western attack on Syria on the already fragile security situation on Lebanon – like the possibility of Hezbollah firing rockets into Israel and the latter retaliating against the group’s positions in the south and Beirut – have put the Lebanese on edge.
The threat of a military strike on Syria comes as the Lebanese are haunted by the specter of a new wave of car bombings following recent blasts in Beirut’s southern suburbs and the northern city of Tripoli that killed nearly 80 people and wounded hundreds in the deadliest attacks since the 1975-90 Civil War.
The car bombings, which were directly tied to the 29-month-old civil war raging in Syria, coincided with the arrest by the Lebanese Army and security forces of suspected members of a car-bombing network seeking to incite sectarian strife in the country.
In an attempt to reassure jittery citizens faced with the threat of car bombings, officials agreed during a special meeting of the Beirut Municipal Council on a series of measures, including the installation of surveillance cameras, to boost security in Beirut.
“Emanating from the basis that security in the capital is a red line and that national duty requires taking extraordinary measures aimed at enhancing the citizens’ confidence in security, we have decided to install a net of [surveillance] cameras covering Beirut’s streets connected with a modern control room,” Bilal Hamad, Beirut’s mayor, told a news conference.
He said he would ask the council to take appropriate measures to implement the decision as soon as possible.
Hamad said that during a security meeting held earlier in the day and attended by chiefs of security agencies, the Municipal Council decided “to energize the role of municipal guards in the capital by mounting foot and vehicle patrols in full coordination with the Internal Security Forces.”
During the meeting held at the office of the governor of Beirut, Nassif Qaloush, the participants also agreed on the need to increase the presence of security forces in the capital’s vital streets and take security measures in front of places of worship as well as various commercial and touristic malls.
In a gesture of solidarity with the victims of the bombings in the Ruwaiss neighborhood in the southern suburbs and the two mosques in Tripoli, the Beirut Municipal Council decided to donate LL150 million to the Municipalities of Haret Hreik, Tripoli and Mina, Hamad said.
Twin car bombings on Aug. 23 targeting two mosques in Tripoli killed at least 47 people and wounded more than 500. That attack came eight days after a car bomb killed 30 people and wounded over 300 in Ruwaiss.
Fears of more car bombings have sparked calls from President Michel Sleiman and religious leaders for the formation for an-all embracing government to face security challenges.