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Protests in Lebanon over Arsal "seige"

Youth burn tires as they block the City Sportive highway in Beirut to protest the blockade imposed on Arsal, Tuesday, March 18, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Angry demonstrators blocked several roads throughout Lebanon Tuesday in protest of what they called the “siege” imposed on Arsal by residents of neighboring Labweh after the latter cut off a vital highway leading to Arsal.

Labweh residents used sand barriers to block the only highway connecting Arsal to the valley and Beirut following repeated rocket attacks on the Bekaa Valley town.

Most of the attacks on Lebweh and other predominantly-Shiite towns in the area were claimed by militant Islamist groups linked to the armed Syrian opposition, citing Hezbollah's role in Syria.

Residents of Labweh accuse the majority-Sunni Arsal of providing a safe haven for militants, claiming the rockets were fired from the town's outskirts.

Arsal is known for its strong support for the opposition, although town officials have insisted they only provide humanitarian assistance.

Labweh's mayor, Ramez Amhaz, has urged residents of Arsal to cooperate with the state to clear the town of Syrian rebels.

Described as Arsal’s lifeline, the blocked highway connects residents to the rest of Lebanon and is an important trade road for the town whch is surrounded by rugged, mountainous terrain.

In response, residents in the Bekaa towns of Taanayel, Jdita, Saadnayel, as well as three Beirut areas and the coastal city of Sidon blocked roads in protest of what they described as attempts to “besiege” the town of Arsal, which hosts over 100,000 Syrian refugees.

In the capital, protesters blocked the road connecting the Cite Sportive stadium to the Cola area, the Qasqas neighborhood outside the Kashkhji Mosque, and Cornish al-Mazraa with burning tires.

In Qasqas, the Army deployed heavily, firing several shots into the air and using tear gas to disperse the protesters, wounding one person who was transferred to a nearby hospital.

The military was able to reopen the road in Sidon as well as the Qasqas road.

A number of Arsal residents gathered near an Army checkpoint at the entrance of the town, demanding security forces reopen the highway.

Tensions have soared between Arsal and neighboring towns after the Syrian army, backed by Hezbollah, regained control of the previously rebel-held bastion of Yabroud Sunday.

The takeover forced many gunmen from the Syrian opposition to flee Yabroud for the mountainous outskirts of Arsal.

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri warned of incitements against Arsal as well as the northern city of Tripoli.

Hariri voiced "the utmost level of solidarity with Arsal, its residents, and with Tripoli, which will never abandon its just cause.”

“History will tell of their support to the oppressed Syrian people, of hosting and providing relief to the displaced ... just as history will tell that Hezbollah is responsible for involving Lebanon in the Syrian fire and participating in a war to support Bashar Assad's regime at the expense of the Syrian people and Lebanon's safety,” he said in a statement.

Hariri said he contacted MP Fouad Siniora, head of the Future bloc, and the general secretariat of the Future Movement to form a working group and develop an immediate plan to address the social and urgent humanitarian cases in Tripoli and Arsal and to provide "needed elements of steadfastness" in these two areas.

Hariri also contacted President Michel Sleiman, Prime Minister Tamma Salam and head of the Army Gen. Jean Kahwagi emphasizing "the need for the state with all its agencies to lift such grievances off Arsal and to shoulder its responsibility in confronting suspicious campaigns, and to contain the suspicious series of incitements and blockades, which are unacceptable.”

 

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