BAALBEK, 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 group.
Gunbattles erupted Saturday morning between Hezbollah members and members from the Sunni 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.
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 that 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 it had erected in the region following threats that party-controlled areas were at risk of car bombings, including the one at which the fighting erupted.
In a statement Saturday night, the Army said it deployed in the city and took the necessary measures to restore stability following the clashes.
The Army said it apprehended a number of suspects.
It also said the military would “firmly face” any gunmen regardless of the family or party they belonged 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 commander 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.”
Sheikh Mohammad Yazbek, the head of Hezbollah’s Shariah 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.”
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 lift political cover off of violators, his office quoted him as saying.
During the fighting, districts of Baalbek along the lines separating Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods were transformed into battlefields, with gunfire and RPGs exchanged by both sides from noon till dusk Saturday.
The city was emptied of civilians who were visiting local markets to buy school supplies for their children at the beginning of the academic year, amid one of the most violent confrontations in the city in recent memory caused by sectarian tension between its Sunni and Shiite communities.
Outreach efforts by local political and clan leaders continued into Sunday morning amid talk of a renewal of the confrontation between the two sides.
A source close to Hezbollah said the party would not allow anyone to fight a battle of attrition against it in Baalbek, which represents a well of political, military and popular support for the party.
The source said that while Hezbollah was avoiding being dragged into a confrontation with Lebanon’s Sunnis, it would not be lenient and retained all options to act in the aftermath of the clashes.
These options include tracking Syrian refugees in the city and their Sunni Lebanese supporters, as well as deploying security checkpoints around the city and carrying out arrests of refugees who allegedly fought alongside the Shiyyah clan and may be linked to the Nusra Front, a Syria-based Al-Qaeda affiliate.
The source said the incident was isolated initially but escalated after the Hezbollah checkpoint was fired upon, followed by gunfire from snipers in the area. The battle was also joined by local clans, the source said, which could complicate matters as Hezbollah does not have control over the actions of the clans.
The source warned that such fighting could escalate beyond sectarian conflict toward clan warfare and revenge killing.
Hezbollah retained control of other checkpoints, including the one that sparked the incident in the city center, amid negotiations to hand over security completely to the Lebanese Army and security forces.
Most local shops remained closed. Some schools that are open Sundays remained closed amid fears that school closures might continue for several days.
Army units deployed at the entrances to the city and its center, and military police units carried out a general survey of the areas where the fighting broke out.
Municipal officials in Baalbek condemned the fighting, saying it contradicted the city’s traditions of coexistence. “What happened is rejected and is now behind us, and everyone has to work to prevent it from recurring,” said Hamad Hasan, the head of the municipality, at a meeting of local authorities and clerics.
The local Dar al-Fatwa spokesman, Sheikh Mohammad Jamal al-Shall, said the clashes were “an attack on Baalbek.”
“We reaffirm that there are no terrorist organizations in the city,” he said. “We in Baalbek are one faction and one body.”
Sheikh Adnan Farhat, a Hezbollah preacher who attended the meeting, said there was “a decision and honest desire to reject and prevent strife,” adding that the city’s tradition of coexistence and sacrifice would not be annulled.
Farhat said Hezbollah was not happy about retaining checkpoints in the city, but that they were necessary to protect the city and its people.