HERMEL, Lebanon: Hezbollah handed over two checkpoints in Baalbek to the Lebanese Army Sunday as part of the military’s deployment to restore calm in the eastern city following clashes that killed four people including two members of the resistance group.
Gun battles erupted Saturday morning between Hezbollah members and members from the Shiyyah family after a dispute in Baalbek’s al-Qalaa marketplace, one of the city’s main shopping districts.
The dispute escalated into several hours of fighting that killed two Hezbollah members and two gunmen and wounded five others, a security source told The Daily Star.
The incident forced many to flee the bustling streets of Baalbek as the clashes extended to several neighborhoods in the city.
Tensions have been high in Baalbek as residents are split in their support for the uprising in Syria and over Hezbollah’s involvement there alongside regime forces.
Earlier this week, the Shiyyah family was in a verbal confrontation with members of the resistance group at the party’s checkpoint near a store belonging to the Sunni family.
In response to the incident which raised concern of rising sectarian tensions in the eastern region, President Michel Sleiman chaired a security meeting at Baabda Palace which was followed by a deployment by one of the Army’s elite units to the area.
Hezbollah handed over two checkpoints to the military in the Baalbek marketplace but maintained others in the region it had erected following threats that party-controlled areas were at risk of car bombings.
In a statement released Saturday night, the Army said it deployed in the city and took the necessary measures to restore and stability following the clashes.
The Army said one soldier who was off duty in his Baalbek house was wounded in the gun battle and that it apprehended a number of suspects.
It also said the military would “firmly face” any gunmen regardless of the family or party they belong to, and asked Baalbek figures to adopt restraint and cooperate with the Army’s measures to prevent further escalation.
During the Baabda Meeting attended by caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, Army head Gen. Jean Kahwagi and a number of security chiefs, officials gave security agencies orders to restore calm and preserve security and civil peace.
The Tripoli-based Islamic National Gathering held a meeting at Future MP Mohammad Kabbara residence to address the clashes in Baalbek, accusing Hezbollah of seeking to eradicate the Sunni community from the city and eastern Bekaa Valley by "killing them, attacking their residences, burning their properties and kidnapping them."
"The citizens can no longer tolerate attacks by the terrorist party which we hold responsible for the instability in Lebanon and hold those who protect it the decline of the state,” the statement said.
The gathering also warned against what it claimed was Hezbollah’s intention to “eradicate the Sunnis from the northern and eastern Bekaa and what this despicable plot could carry for repercussions on Lebanon.”
It also asked Speaker Nabih Berri and Hezbollah’s chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah for a speedy reaction to the clashes in Baalbek "because your silence is permission for war.”
Sheikh Mohammad Yazbek, the head of Hezbollah's Sharia Council, said the clashes were unacceptable and that his group exerted efforts to prevent the incident from taking a more serious turn and inflaming sectarian tensions.
“What happened in Baalbek is very painful and it is what we have been warning against and asking the state to shoulder its responsibility,” Yazbek said.
“The attack and the killing brought us to a point which we do not accept as we are in need of people to help prevent sectarian and confessional strife,” he added.
He also indirectly criticized some Future MPs for accusing Hezbollah of being behind the clashes and making the claim that the Sunni community in Lebanon has become oppressed.
“It's shameful for some to speak about how Sunnis are oppressed and it is shameful that such insanity is from someone who considers themselves officials in Parliament,” Yazbek said.
“It is unfortunate that this lawmaker would speak on the podium of strife,” he said.
Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam said the Baalbek incident highlighted the serious risks that threaten Lebanese areas as a result of “sectarian and rhetoric overload and the proliferation of illegal arms which are used as means to dominate the decision-making power of one group over the other.”
The state should reinforce its profile through its own security agencies and a political safety net that should lift cover off violators, his office quoted him as saying. -With additional reporting by Dana Khraiche