BEIRUT: The Lebanese Army’s airborne regiment backed by police officers deployed Wednesday in central Arsal after angry demonstrations threatened to upend the fragile security of Beirut and north Lebanon in protest over a blockade of the Bekaa Valley border town.
The Army reopened the only road to Arsal, which is accused of harboring Syrian rebels, after nighttime protests forced the closure of several major highways in Beirut and throughout Lebanon in support of the mainly Sunni town.
Outraged residents continued to block roads in the capital using burning tires in protest against the killing of Hussam al-Shawwa, who was shot during a demonstration Tuesday night.
Angered by the death of Shawwa, several young men cut off the road connecting Cola to Cite Sportive Stadium as well as the Beirut neighborhood of Qasqas.
Shawwa, 40, was shot when soldiers fired into the air and used tear gas to disperse the demonstrators blocking the Qasqas road. He later died of wounds in hospital.
An Army source said that the investigation into his killing, which is being conducted by the military police, is ongoing to reveal the details of the incident.
The source said the military was awaiting the results of forensic tests to identify the source of the bullets, their type, caliber and the rifles from which they were fired.
Friends and relatives of Shawwa fired several gunshots into the air during his funeral procession at the Khashokji Mosque in Qasqas.
Residents, along with the ISF, cleared overturned garbage dumpsters in the area and reopened the road at around 5:30 p.m.
Young protesters in the area said they took to the street in anger at the siege of Arsal and Shawwa’s death. They said the protests were key to reopening the road to Arsal.
They also said it was an opportunity to release pent up frustration over what they saw as the oppression of the Sunni community and Hezbollah’s fighting in Syria.
“We are frustrated and our blood is boiling,” said one protester, who declined to give his name. “We are oppressed, we are many but we have no weapons, we only have God.”
“We used to consider Hezbollah a resistance,” a demonstrator said. “We were with them in fighting Israel. Why are they defending the Baath [party]?”
Protesters said they had resorted to peaceful means in their demonstrations against the Arsal siege, but warned that the streets could turn violent if the town was blockaded once again.
Residents from the predominantly Shiite neighboring town of Labweh had sealed off the main road to Arsal with a sand barrier after one person was killed by rocket fire allegedly coming from the direction of the Sunni town.
The closure sparked protests by angry Sunnis, who took to the streets in Taanayel, Jdita and Saadnayel in the Bekaa Valley, blocking major highways with burning tires.
Similar protests also saw the closures of several Beirut highways as well as the coastal highway connecting the capital to the south and key roads in the northern Akkar region.
Policemen teamed up with soldiers to beef up security in Arsal after residents protested the so-called “siege” imposed by Labweh residents who claim Arsal has turned into a safe haven for Syrian militants.
Security forces found a warm welcome as they reached Arsal Wednesday morning and the town’s mayor, Ali Hujeiri, slaughtered sheep to honor them.
Hujeiri and a delegation of town officials took law enforcement officers on a tour of Arsal before soldiers began patrolling the streets alongside police.
He said that Arsal was ready to cooperate fully with the state in order to arrest outlawed gunmen.
“We do not provide cover to any gunmen no matter who they are.”
Hujeiri expressed support for the Syrian revolution but said those who back it should fight in Syria instead of attacking nearby villages with rockets.
Local residents issued a statement welcoming the presence of security forces and expressing hope that peace and security would return to Arsal. “We reaffirm that we are Lebanese on Lebanese land and with Lebanese identity that we are proud of,” the statement said. “We also reaffirm our desire to live in our country Lebanon with all the Lebanese in peace and love.”
The statement expressed regret at recent security incidents in the area.
The military removed the sand barriers that had been erected by Labweh’s residents on the road, and student demonstrators from Arsal’s schools marched in support of the Army.
Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said he planned to deploy backup police forces to enhance security and stability in Arsal, home to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees.
“I decided to dispatch 40 police members to beef up Internal Security Forces [already deployed] in Arsal.”
Hezbollah retained two checkpoints near Labweh that examined cars visiting the town from the direction of Arsal.
Meanwhile, President Michel Sleiman chaired a high-level meeting which focused on the country’s security situation mainly in Arsal and the northern city of Tripoli, which has seen renewed clashes linked to the crisis in next-door Syria.
The meeting held at Baabda Palace was attended by Prime Minister Tammam Salam and the country’s top military and security leaders. Salam said the conferees decided to call a meeting of the Higher Defense Council to discuss a security plan “to address the concerns and restore state prestige.”
Also Wednesday, two rockets struck a deserted area in the northeastern town of Hermel near the public hospital. No casualties or material damage were reported. – Additional reporting by Wassim Mroueh