TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Armed protesters demanding the release of Islamist prisoners opened fire Friday on Minister Faisal Karami’s convoy in Tripoli, north Lebanon, and later destroyed a vehicle accompanying the official.
Eleven people were wounded in the incident including four of Karami's bodyguards, security sources told The Daily Star.
Karami, who was not harmed, described the attack as an attempt on his life while his father, former Prime Minister Omar Karami, said the incident was a "mistake."
The protesters, some carrying machine guns, had planned to stage a sit-in at Tripoli's main Nour Square after Friday prayers in solidarity with the dozens of Fatah al-Islam inmates still waiting trial at Lebanon’s Roumieh prison, northeast of Beirut.
As they approached the popular landmark, tension erupted between the protesters and Karami's guards as they drove through Azmi Street near Nour Square, triggering a shootout.
Karami was hauled out of his car by bodyguards, who clashed with the armed men. The protesters then tossed a grenade at the convoy, setting a jeep on fire.
Following the incident, tight security was reinforced around former Prime Minister Omar Karami’s offices in the city while the Army deployed heavily in Nour Square backed by armored vehicles.
The sit-in was cancelled.
Around 200 suspected Fatah al-Islam inmates allegedly involved in the 2007 battle with the Lebanese Army in the northern Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared are awaiting trial at Roumieh, Lebanon’s largest prison.
Karami, who hails from the northern port city, said the incident represented an attack on his life.
“I was a target of an assassination attempt when my convoy was attacked by gunfire and they were aiming at me,” Karami told The Daily Star.
However, flanked by his son during a news conference in Tripoli, Omar Karami said the incident was a “mistake.”
“Today after this incident, we affirm that we do not hold any grudges against any one or accuse anyone but what happened was a mistake by the gunmen who were present at this location,” he said.
The former prime minister said no law suit would be filed in the case.
“We affirm and insist that our choice remains within the logic of the state and we will not sue anyone or hold any responsible for this incident,” he said.
Karami also voiced disdain with the security situation in his home city, saying security forces could do more.
“We do not feel that security forces are doing their job in a way that relieves people. The sit-in and other similar incidents affect the livelihoods [of the people of the city] and the economic situation,” he said.
“Security forces and the Army should take all the necessary measures to reassure people and reactivate the economy,” he added.
The incident in the north of the country prompted Prime Minister Najib Mikati to call for an emergency session of the Central Security Council in Tripoli.
The council, headed by Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, convened around 4 p.m. at Tripoli’s Serail to evaluate information obtained by the Army and security forces regarding the circumstances of the attack.
Charbel said Friday’s incident was not premeditated and urged politicians to come together in a bid to resolve the situation in the northern city once and for all.
“The attack was not studied or premeditated,” he told reporters after the council’s meeting.
“Politicians should announce a state of political emergency immediately and hold a session in Parliament to address the situation in Tripoli and resolve it,” the minister added.
He reiterated his proposal to turn the northern city into a military zone following numerous security incidents in the past two years that have killed dozens of people.
The Army has deployed in the area on several occasions over clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian government, but Charbel said the “issue was bigger than the military, security forces and the Lebanese government.”
In an earlier chat with reporters at Karami's residence, Charbel said political cover should be lifted from gunmen in the city.
“When [political] cover is lifted then we can resolve the issue of armed individuals,” he said.
Charbel said the incident was a result of shortcomings by the government and security forces but said political figures could no longer control their supporters who he said were heavily armed.
Earlier, the prime minister decried the incident, saying that “a mere condemnation is not enough because God saved Tripoli from this dangerous crossroads."
He said the attack on Karami represented “the targeting of Tripoli, its stability and security, and an attempt to stir internal strife in the city.”
He also phoned both Karami and his father to discuss the assault.
The Lebanese military said soldiers returned law and order in Tripoli following the shootout, “which damaged one of the convoy’s vehicles and wounded several members.”
A statement from the Lebanese Army said that in response to the incident, soldiers cordoned off the area around Nour Square and conducted patrols while setting up checkpoints across the northern city.
“The situation has returned to normal,” the military communiqué said, adding that a search was under way to arrest the perpetrators.
Mikati, according to his office, warned of the increasingly dangerous situation in the northern city.
"Arming [individuals] has reached an unprecedented and very dangerous level in the city," he said.
"Why were they [the protesters] carrying arms if they were heading to hold a sit-in?" Mikati asked.
He added that residents were familiar with both Karami’s convoy and that it routinely crossed Azmi Street toward the mosque for Friday prayers.