TRIPOLI/BEIRUT: A prominent local Muslim preacher and a companion were killed Sunday after Lebanese soldiers shot at them at an army checkpoint in Akkar, prompting a withdrawal by the military from the area, in an escalation of tension in the northern region of the country.
Sheikh Ahmad Abdel-Wahed and his companion, Sheikh Mohammad al-Mereb, were killed at an army checkpoint in Kwaikhat, Akkar, before noon while they were on route to a rally organized by MP Khaled Daher in Halba to commemorate the killing of Future Movement supporters during clashes in 2008.
Daher canceled the Halba event, which had been scheduled to run alongside a rival rally by the Syrian Nationalist Socialist Party (SSNP) to commemorate their members who were slain in the 2008 clashes.
In a statement, the army expressed its deepest regrets over the incident in which the two men “were killed after sustaining gunshot wounds.”
“[The army] immediately took the initiative to form an investigative committee of senior officers and military police under the supervision of the relevant judiciary,” it said.
The army has pulled out military vehicles and removed its checkpoints from Akkar and returned to barracks in the northern area of Andaqit.
Tensions ran high in the northernmost region as gunmen were seen in the areas of Bireh and Qobeiyat.
Residents, angered over the killings, also blocked roads and burned tires in several areas, including Abdeh, as well as Malluleh, near the northern entrance to Tripoli.
After chairing a high-level meeting at the Grand Serail of top security officials and several ministers, Prime Minister Najib Mikati said if authorities were at fault, the law regulating security agencies would kick in.
“If some problems or mistakes occur on security duty, the laws that govern these [security] agencies will be implemented,” Mikati said, according to a statement from his office.
“The judiciary will be the guarantor that ensures neutrality within the work of security agencies along with a political decision that is clear in this regard,” he added.
Commenting on the incident earlier in the day, President Michel Sleiman, who headed the Lebanese Army before taking the office of president, said the deaths of the two religious figures were a loss for Akkar’s residents as well as the army.
The president described Akkar’s residents as the main reservoir for the Lebanese military and praised them on the sacrifices they made in the service of their nation.
He voiced relief that the Lebanese Army had launched a probe.
An hour after the incident, a man who claimed to be Abdul-Wahed’s chauffeur told local media that soldiers had shot the two men even though the military had been notified that the preacher’s convoy would cross the checkpoint in the day.
Upon arrival at the checkpoint, the man said several soldiers waved them by but that one soldier demanded Abdul-Wahed step out of the vehicle. After an altercation with the soldier, the chauffer said he stepped out of the vehicle, after which Abdel-Wahed took the driver’s seat and turned the vehicle around to head back. The soldiers then fired at the vehicle, killing the sheikh, he added.
Military Prosecutor Judge Saqr Saqr arrived at the scene of the incident at around 4:30 p.m. where he questioned the driver of Abdel-Wahid's vehicle and, along with members of military police, inspected the area.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the head of the Future Movement, condemned the killing and said it was clear “that there is a plan to destabilize some Lebanese regions and drag specific problems to them to serve the Syrian regime and its tools.”
“We do not blame the Lebanese army as a whole for the murder ... But it is clear that some people involved in this murder want to use the institution and its symbol to import the crisis of the Syrian regime with its people and the whole world, to Lebanon, in a desperate attempt to save it from its unavoidable end,” he said in a statement.
Hariri contacted Sleiman and Kahwagi and demanded that they launch a commission to investigate the incident and hold those responsible, “no matter how high their rank,” to account.
The impact of the Akkar killings could be felt in the neighboring city of Tripoli.
There was an armed presence in both Bab el-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, the two rival neighborhoods that clashed last week.
All roads were closed in the city and security around the SSNP’s office was bolstered.
Sounds of gunfire could also be heard.
People also gathered in Nour Square to protest of the killings.
Tripoli and North Lebanon Mufti Sheikh Malek Shaar, after chairing a meeting at his residence with ministers, MPs and religious figures from the city, urged Sleiman, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Mikati and Lebanese Army head Gen. Jean Kahwagi to punish those responsible for Abdel-Wahed’s killing.
He added that those who had fired at the preacher were in custody and were being questioned.
“We call on [residents] of Akkar and Tripoli ... not to block roads or burn tires and commit to public peace and give the judiciary a real opportunity to [finalize] the case,” Shaar told reporters.
A prominent Salafist in the city told The Daily Star that calm would return to the city.
“Roads will be re-opened in the next few hours, calm will return, and authorities will be given time to conduct their probe,” Bilal Dokmak said.
Dokmak also said detained Chadi Mawalawi, the trigger of the unrest in the city last week, would be released Tuesday.
MP Daher, who held a news conference outside his party’s office shortly following the incident, urged the army to punish the "officers" who shot at Abdel-Wahed.
"The army and its intelligence have always played a negative role in the [northern] region," Daher said, accusing the government of acting as "an agent" for Damascus.
Abdul-Wahed was a member of the Bireh’s municipality and he was a candidate from the union of municipalities in Dreeb, Akkar.
In his statement Saturday, Hariri described Abdul-Wahed as patriotic and having stood “with what is right.”
“Sheikh Ahmad was known for his patriotism and for standing with what is right, which was reflected in his support of justice in the case of the assassination of martyr [former] Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and his support for the Syrian people in their struggle against the Assad’s repressive regime,” Hariri said.