BEIRUT: The Lebanese Army launched a major security dragnet Monday, vowing to crack down on gunmen and restore order in Beirut rattled by the worst outburst of violence since 2008 following last week’s assassination of police intelligence chief Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan.
The Army issued stern warnings to gunmen to withdraw from the streets and open roads, stressing that security was “a red line.”
Troops, backed by armored personnel carriers and heavy machine guns, fanned out across the capital to dismantle roadblocks and chase gunmen off the streets in several neighborhoods of Beirut following mounting tension sparked by Hasan’s assassination. The sound of sporadic gunfire reverberated in parts of Beirut before the military deployment.
At least seven people were killed and more than 20 wounded in sectarian clashes between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the northern city of Tripoli in the past two days, security sources said. A Palestinian man was killed by soldiers who returned fire following an attack on their patrol in Beirut.
The Army’s crackdown followed sectarian clashes between rival gunmen in Beirut and Tripoli and the closure of roads in the capital and other key roads on the coastal highway south of Beirut shortly after Hasan’s funeral in downtown Beirut Sunday.
The Army shot and killed a Palestinian man who opened fire on a military patrol as troops attempted to restore order in and around Beirut following raids of militant hideouts.
An Army statement said Ahmad and Abed Qwaider, Palestinians, opened fire on a Lebanese Army patrol in the Qasqas neighborhood, prompting soldiers to return fire. “Ahmad died as a result of his wounds,” the statement said.
“The Army Command repeats what it had stressed in a previous statement that military units will firmly and strongly confront those who try to tamper with the security of citizens and attack Army forces regardless of their affiliations,” the statement added.
In an earlier statement Monday, the Army Command warned against political exploitation of Hasan’s assassination and vowed to prevent attempts to destabilize the country. The statement said the Army was committed to its role of preventing security breaches and maintaining civil peace in the country.
Referring to the clashes between supporters and opponents of Assad in Beirut and Tripoli that followed Hasan’s funeral, the statement said: “Recent developments that happened in the last few hours have proved beyond doubt that the country is going through a crucial and critical period and tension has risen in some areas to unprecedented levels.”
It appealed to all political parties to be wary of their statements and not to incite violence “because the fate of the nation is at stake.”
“The Army Command affirms its commitment to its role in preventing security breaches and maintaining civil peace,” the statement said. “Therefore, it calls on all citizens of their various affiliations to display the highest level of national responsibility in this critical period and to vacate the streets and open the roads that are still blocked.”
“Security is a red line in deeds, not in words. So is the targeting of official institutions and attacking public and private properties,” the statement said.
It added that strict measures, particularly in areas of escalating sectarian frictions, are being taken to “prevent Lebanon from being turned again into an arena for settling regional scores and prevent the assassination of martyr General Wissam al-Hasan from being exploited as an opportunity to assassinate the nation as a whole.”
Hasan, the head of the police’s Information Branch who opposed Assad, was killed along with his driver and a woman in a car bomb that ripped through the Beirut neighborhood of Ashrafieh last Friday.
Hasan, 47, was close to the Hariri family and played a key role in the probe of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination. The March 14 coalition has blamed Assad for Hasan’s assassination and called on Prime Minister Najib Mikati to resign immediately.
Shortly after the Army carried out the military operation in Beirut, Army Commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi inspected Army units deployed in the area and was briefed by officers on the security measures taken to restore order.
Kahwagi issued instructions to officers and soldiers to “confront strife and not to be lenient with those trying to tamper with the country’s security to whatever group they belonged,” according to an Army statement.
He called on the military to do their best to protect the lives of citizens and their properties and the freedom of their movement, it said. Kahwagi briefed Mikati on the Army’s measures.
Beirut was rocked by sectarian clashes in May 2008 between pro- and anti-government gunmen after Hezbollah’s supporters briefly took over west Beirut to protest the government’s decision to dismantle the party’s private telecommunications network. More than 80 people were killed in those clashes that also spread to other areas in the mountains.
Monday’s military raids, which began around 10 a.m., were heavily concentrated in the Beirut areas of Tayyouneh, Qasqas and Beshara al-Khoury.
The Army operation came after six people were wounded in overnight clashes in Beirut’s Tariq al-Jdideh neighborhood following Hasan’s funeral.
Security sources said the six men, including a Syrian and a Palestinian, were wounded in the exchanges of machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades between the predominantly Sunni Tariq al-Jdideh and nearby Barbour, a neighborhood controlled by the Amal Movement and Hezbollah.
Fighting stopped at about 2 a.m. when the Army managed to deploy and calm returned to the embattled areas. Stray bullets hit several west Beirut homes outside the areas of tension.
“This is crazy. A real war was going on. My father could have been killed in his bedroom,” said Rola Riashi, a resident of Wata Mosseitbeh.
She said a stray bullet pierced her father’s bedroom window late Sunday as the family huddled together in the corner of another room for safety.
There was very little traffic on the roads of west Beirut Monday morning and many parents did not send their children to school.
The Education Ministry called on schools located in the areas of tension to make their own decision about whether to open.
Troops in Qasqas and Tariq al-Jdideh were seen blaring warnings to gunmen through loudspeakers. Soon afterward, no gunmen could be seen on the streets and the military began removing barricades used to block the roads.
Tensions remained high in Tariq al-Jdideh and surrounding Sunni-dominant neighborhoods of Corniche al-Mazraa, Wata Mosseitbeh, Cola and the area where the Camille Chamoun Sports Stadium, commonly known as the Cite Sportive.
Police and the Army blocked several roads of the capital early Monday, including Salim Salam passageway, for “security considerations,” according to one source. The roads were then re-opened around 10 a.m., with security forces patrolling the area.
The Beirut fighting coincided with armed clashes that raged well into the morning hours between the neighborhoods of Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh in Tripoli, north Lebanon. The Tripoli clashes tapered off Monday morning, but heavy fighting renewed around midday.
Security sources in Tripoli said seven people were killed and more than 20 wounded in two days of clashes, triggered after Akkar Mufti Sheikh Ossama Rifai delivered a fiery speech during Hasan’s funeral and leading to the death of a 15-year-old resident of Jabal Mohsen.