Lebanon News

Arsal ‘siege’ sparks widespread protests

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: Officials struggled Tuesday to contain fallout over a makeshift blockade of Arsal, as residents of a neighboring village closed the main thoroughfare into the northern town and urged it to clamp down on Syrian rebel activity.

One person was killed as angry demonstrators blocked several roads throughout Lebanon Tuesday evening in protest of what they called the siege imposed on Arsal by residents of Labweh after the latter cut off its vital “artery.”

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.

Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk pledged to reopen the road by Wednesday morning.

The Army said that starting Tuesday evening Army units would boost their presence in border areas of the northern Bekaa Valley, particularly Arsal and Labweh.

“We will reopen all roads between these two villages to secure the passage of people and preserve security and stability in the region,” an Army statement said.

Residents in the Bekaa Valley towns of Taanayel, Jdita and Saadnayel, as well as three Beirut areas and the coastal city of Sidon blocked roads in protest at what they described as attempts to besiege 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 Corniche 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 and later died.

The military was able to reopen several of the roads, including in Sidon and Qasqas.

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

A number of Arsal residents gathered near an Army checkpoint at the town’s entrance, demanding security forces reopen the highway. An unknown gunman fired on the checkpoint, but there were no casualties.

Most of the attacks on Labweh 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.

Prominent Arsal residents are working on a compromise that would see the Army deploy in the areas where Syrian rebels are allegedly firing rockets at Labweh.

The aim of such a compromise would be to ensure Arsal’s neutrality with respect to the war in Syria.

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

Meanwhile, the Syrian army claimed to discover two sites in Yabroud that were allegedly used by radical groups to rig car bombs bound for Lebanon as well as to manufacture rockets, local media reported.

Speaking to Al-Manar television, a Syrian officer said the military uncovered “the central hub” where rebels rigged vehicles with explosives.

In the past few months, Lebanon has witnessed over a dozen car bombs and rocket attacks, most of which were claimed by Islamist radical groups seeking to strike Hezbollah over the group’s involvement in Syria.

The deadly attacks have targeted predominantly Shiite areas where Hezbollah enjoys wide support.

Al-Manar also reported that the Syrian army dismantled a vehicle rigged with 200 kilograms of RTX explosives in Yabroud. The vehicle had a Lebanese license plate. Television footage showed the vehicle packed with explosives with the detonator placed near the driver’s seat.

Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas confirmed that Syrian fighters managed to enter Lebanon after the fall of Yabroud.

“After every battle in Syria, the number of refugees to Lebanon rises, and after the battle of Yabroud, gunmen also entered,” Derbas said after meeting MP Bahia Hariri in Sidon. “We cannot leave things in a haphazard manner.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 19, 2014, on page 1.




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