TRIPOLI/SIDON, Lebanon: Two soldiers died and a third was wounded Tuesday evening when gunmen targeted their patrol in the northern Akkar region, hours after a Salafist preacher warned of major fallout in response to the Lebanese Army’s measures in Tripoli.
Unidentified gunmen shot from a car at an Army patrol in the Qammoua region of Akkar, killing a Lebanese Army officer and soldier, and wounding the third soldier, in what the Army described as an ambush in a statement.
The Army said it was working to apprehend the perpetrators.
The mayor of the Akkar village of Fneideq, Khaldoun Taleb, admitted that his nephew Ali Hussein Taleb was involved in the ambush, firing shoots at the soldiers, and called for his immediate arrest.
The shooting happened hours after tensions and gunfire threatened to upend the fragile peace in Tripoli Tuesday, as some residents protested an ongoing security crackdown and Salafist preacher Sheikh Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal slammed the military.
Protesters briefly burned tires and blocked the roads in Tripoli’s vegetable market, Souk al-Qameh and Al-Hara Berranieh, urging authorities to end the raids, which they argue are targeting Sunnis. The Army measures are part of a plan launched last week to restore security across Tripoli.
Troops then confiscated two vehicles from the convoy of Sheikh Shahhal, who was attending the protest and whose supporters later blocked the Beddawi-Tripoli road leading to Akkar, demanding the return of the vehicles.
Shahhal lashed out at the Army, urging the military to apologize and return the cars “immediately.”
“If they don’t, something big will happen,” he said.
The sheikh said he came down to the protest to listen to the people’s complaints and was shocked by the Army’s behavior: “We will not accept injustice in the city.”
In a statement issued in the afternoon, the Army said it detained two people in Tripoli for possessing three unlicensed military-grade guns and two handguns, as well as for driving cars without legal papers. The two were bodyguards of Shahhal.
During Tuesday’s Cabinet session, President Michel Sleiman indirectly hit back at Shahhal and other preachers who had accused the Army of targeting Sunnis while carrying out security measures.
“There are discordant voices that accuse the Army of bias. The Army is implementing a political decision of the Lebanese state. It is not biased toward any political or sectarian group and the military and security agencies have a mechanism for self-accountability,” he said.
In a news conference, Shahhal had claimed “there’s a conspiracy among some parties targeting the Sunni sect to make way for the Iranian project.”
“Lebanon is abducted and our Army is being diverted to treat its people as the Syrian Army treats its people,” he said, adding that “the Salafist movement is being targeted.”
“We do not accept that Tripoli and Arsal are treated differently from the southern suburbs [of Beirut],” he said. The Army security plan was introduced in Tripoli to end three-years of intermittent sectarian clashes in the city that are linked to the Syrian war. The widespread Army and ISF deployment was accompanied by 200 arrest warrants for militia leaders and outlaws in the city, many of whom have now gone into hiding.
But farther south in Sidon, where Monday clashes at the Mieh Mieh Palestinian refugee camp claimed the lives of eight people, a cautious and shocked calm returned to the streets of the camp, where schools and local institutions remained closed in fear of further violence.
Gunmen from Ansar Allah, a Hezbollah-backed Palestinian group, killed former Fatah commander Ahmad Rashid Adwan and some of his aides Monday. Several civilians were wounded in the fighting.
Sources said the leadership of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization had managed so far to contain the fallout from the Mieh Mieh clashes, which threatened an initiative by Palestinian factions in Lebanon to maintain the neutrality of the refugee camps from Lebanese politics and the crisis in Syria.
But observers remained cautious of spillover violence after the incidents in the camp, which was previously among the most peaceful in Lebanon.
Mohammad Abu Harb, the Fatah security official in charge of Mieh Mieh, told The Daily Star that stability had returned to the camp and the violence confined, adding that those who died in the clashes would be buried Tuesday and Wednesday.
Senior Palestinian officials met at their embassy in Beirut with a delegation from Ansar Allah, who reiterated that the violence was in response to an assassination attempt against the group’s secretary-general, Jamal Sleiman.
The group condemned the violence in the camp, “which led to the killing of innocents” and created a “state of shock and fear” among residents.