TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Gunmen demanding the release of Islamist prisoners opened fire on Youth and Sports Minister Faisal Karami’s convoy in Tripoli Friday, wounding 11 people in an incident directly linked to rising tensions in north Lebanon over the bloody conflict in Syria.
Karami, who was not harmed, initially described the attack as an attempt on his life while his father, former Prime Minister Omar Karami, said the incident was a “mistake.”
“I was a target of an assassination attempt when my convoy was attacked by gunmen and they were aiming at me,” Karami told The Daily Star.
Later, the minister retracted his statement. “I don’t think I was personally targeted,” Karami told a local TV channel, adding that the assailants “did not know I would be passing in this area at this time.”
One of Karami’s vehicles went up in flames after the attack, which was sparked by a dispute over traffic priority between the minister’s bodyguards and armed Islamists from Tripoli’s Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood, whose residents support the armed rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Eleven people were wounded in the incident, including four of Karami’s bodyguards, security sources said.
The gunmen, some carrying assault rifles, were heading to Tripoli’s main Nour Square to stage a sit-in 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 bodyguards 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 minister’s convoy, setting an SUV on fire. Following the incident, tight security was reinforced around Omar Karami’s offices in the city while the Army deployed heavily in Nour Square backed by armored vehicles. The sit-in was canceled.
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.
The attack on Karami’s convoy heightened tensions in Tripoli, which has been rocked in recent months by clashes between Assad’s supporters and opponents in Bab al-Tabaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhood.
However, Omar Karami, flanked by his son during a news conference in Tripoli, sought to play down the attack, saying the incident was a “mistake.”
“Today after this incident, we affirm that we do not hold any grudges against anyone or accuse anyone. We are certain that what happened was a mistake by the gunmen who were present at this location,” he said.
He added that no lawsuit 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 anyone responsible for this incident,” Karami said.
He voiced discomfort with the security situation in his home city, saying security forces could do more. “Security forces and the Army should take all the necessary measures to reassure people and reactivate the economy,” he added.
The Lebanese Army said soldiers returned law and order in Tripoli following the shootout, “which damaged one of the convoy’s vehicles and wounded several members.”
An Army statement said that soldiers cordoned off the area around Nour Square and conducted patrols while setting up checkpoints across the northern city, adding that a search was under way to arrest the perpetrators.
Following the incident, Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for an emergency session of the Central Security Council in Tripoli.
Mikati, who met the Karamis, said the attack on the youth minister’s convoy was an attempt to sow strife in Tripoli: “A mere condemnation is not enough because God saved Tripoli from this dangerous crossroads.”
He warned of the increasingly tense 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
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, who chaired a meeting of the Central Security Council, called for Tripoli to be declared an arms-free city. He warned that strife in Tripoli might spread to all of Lebanon.
“The attack was not planned or premeditated,” Charbel told reporters. “The state and Tripoli’s politicians must meet and decide to declare the city free of arms ... It is not permissible for arms to be in the hands of people and be used so easily.”
Although the Army has deployed in the area on several occasions following clashes between Assad’s supporters and opponents, Charbel said the “issue was bigger than the military, security forces and the Lebanese government.”
“An arms-free Tripoli is a good example for all of Lebanon,” Charbel said. “What we fear most is for strife to start from this city to engulf all of Lebanon.”
A delegation of Tripoli’s Islamists visited Omar Karami to condemn the attack.
The incident was condemned by politicians on both sides of the political divide. President Michel Sleiman, Mikati, Speaker Nabih Berri, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Cabinet ministers were among those who called Karami and his son to condemn the attack and congratulate the minister on his safety.
Hariri contacted Faisal Karami and condemned the attack as “a despicable attempt to drag Tripoli into instability again.”
“Hariri called on Tripoli’s residents and notables to be wary of such attempts, preserve national security and cooperate with the security and judicial authorities to fight such incidents and put an end to them,” said a statement released by the former prime minister’s office.
Hezbollah’s deputy chief Sheikh Naim Qassem telephoned Omar Karami and his son on behalf of the party’s leader Sayyed Hasan Nasralalh to congratulate them on the youth minister’s safety after the attack.