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Lebanon beefs up security at Western embassies

BEIRUT: The French Embassy in Lebanon will close Friday as a security precaution after a satirical magazine based in France published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, diplomatic sources said.

In view of the potential threats of violent demonstrations, security forces bolstered their presence around the French Embassy in Beirut Wednesday.

The security measures were planned as protests triggered by an anti-Islam movie continue in a number of countries, including Lebanon.

In addition to the French Embassy, French schools and cultural centers will also shut Friday in 20 countries.

The French Foreign Affairs Ministry announced that the country would close 20 of its embassies worldwide, but officials at the ministry refused to specify which countries.

The Foreign Ministry urged all French diplomatic personnel to exercise caution, and called on relevant authorities to respect international conventions and protect the security of embassies abroad.

The fresh controversy was triggered when cartoons of a naked Prophet Mohammad were published by satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Tensions are already high following the release of a low-budget movie made in the U.S. that mocks the Prophet.

At least 30 people have been killed in protests over the movie – including one in Lebanon.

Early Wednesday, assailants opened fire at a KFC restaurant in the southern town of Nabatieh. A KFC and Hardee’s in Tripoli were vandalized and set on fire Friday.

In response to the backlash, security measures have been strengthened around the U.S. Embassy north of Beirut, but operations continue.

“We have always kept heightened security measures and we are not strangers to potential security threats,” embassy spokesperson Amanda Johnson told The Daily Star.

“After the violent demonstrations last week, we suspended visa services Monday, but since Tuesday we have been fully operational,” said Johnson.

She said that the embassy had remained highly vigilant for many years due to its “long history with potential security threats.”

A senior official from the Internal Security Forces told The Daily Star that the French Embassy and a number of other embassies had requested additional security measures in the vicinity of their missions.

“In line with these requests, we have multiplied our patrols and we have taken all the necessary measures to ensure the safety of the diplomatic missions in the country,” said the official from the ISF.

Army enforcements were enhanced on all entrances to Damascus Street, where the French Embassy is located.

The measures are being taken amid reports that anti-U.S. and anti-French demonstrations could be held across Lebanon after Friday prayers.

Sunni Sheikh Ahmad Assir has already called for a protest at Downtown’s Martyrs Square Friday afternoon and a number of other spontaneous protests could also erupt on the same day.

Army reinforcements were also present next to the French cultural center in Sidon, according to security sources.

Hezbollah continued its protests against the film, with thousands of party supporters marching Wednesday in the southern city of Tyre.

Protesters chanted “America, America, you are the great Satan!” and “Israel is the enemy of the Muslims!” as they poured onto the streets of Tyre.

Demonstrators also carried posters that read: “We sacrifice ourselves for you, O messenger of God,” “All our problems are from America,” and “Muslims and Christians in defense of the prophet’s dignity.”

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah called Monday for protests across the country, describing the inflammatory movie as “the worst attack ever on Islam.”

Addressing the crowd in Tyre, Nabil Qaouq, the deputy head of the party’s executive council, warned the U.S. and France against entering into a confrontation with the Muslim world.

“It is better for you Americans to take a step back, and not to get stuck in an all-out confrontation with the Islamic ummah [nation],” Qaouq said. “France has also chosen to take a position of animosity against the ummah.”

Both countries should “be aware of the Muslim ummah’s rage, because it is capable of doing anything to defend the dignity of the messenger of God.”

With protests over the cartoons expected to target French embassies in the region, France has warned its citizens to be vigilant and stay away from gatherings.

“It is highly recommended to stay away from gatherings, avoid using roads where street protests usually take place and to stay away from vulnerable buildings (Western interests, places of worship ... ),” read a text message received by French nationals in Lebanon.

The message also advised French nationals to limit their movement as much as possible in case any security incidents erupt.

Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius said that Paris has stepped up security at embassies in countries where there could be a hostile reaction to a magazine’s publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault reiterated that freedom of expression constitutes one of the founding principles of France’s republic.

“This freedom is exercised within the framework of law and under the control of the courts when referred there,” Ayrault said in a statement.

He added that the principle of secularism is at the core of the French republican pact, along with the values of tolerance and respect for religious beliefs.

“That is why, in light of recent developments, the prime minister is keen to stating his disapproval of exaggerated reactions, and calls on everyone to act in a responsible way.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 20, 2012, on page 1.

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