LABWEH/QASR, Lebanon: Religious and political leaders called for a swift investigation into the killing of three Lebanese Shiite men and a Turk in Wadi Rafeq Sunday, as they scrambled to contain the sectarian fallout from the attack.
A cautious calm prevailed in the Bekaa Valley as clan leaders from Baalbek-Hermel, along with officials from Hezbollah and Amal, urged wisdom and self-restraint as the men were laid to rest in their villages of Qasr, Labweh and Nabi Othman.
Two men from the Jaafar family, one from the Amhaz clan and a Turk whose mother is Lebanese and hails from the Seifeddine clan in Baalbek were killed Sunday in an ambush in Wadi Rafeq, an isolated area in the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border and the towns of Arsal and Ras Baalbek.
The Jaafar and Amhaz families are prominent Shiite clans in the region and the incident raised fears of tribal and sectarian retribution in the area with its traditions of clan loyalty.
An atmosphere of grief and anger was palpable in the funeral held for Mohammad and Hussein Ali Jaafar, who were killed in the attack.
A large funeral procession was led by Hezbollah and Amal officials, and attendees prayed for the victims before carrying their caskets by hand and burying them in Qasr, a town on the border with Syria.
“Fear God, we want to live together,” said Sheikh Mohammad Yazbek, the head of Hezbollah’s Shariah Council, in a gathering with members of the Jaafar clan.
Security forces and Lebanese Army intelligence launched an investigation into the attack, which risks inflaming sectarian tensions in the Bekaa Valley, and continued to patrol the roads leading from the major towns in the region to counter any armed presence.
Gunmen had taken to the streets Sunday as news of the ambush spread to the surrounding towns and villages, and some were present at the funerals.
Yazbek called on the state to apprehend those who carried out the shooting, saying the “savage attack” would only mark the beginning of similar acts of violence unless it was challenged.
The clans strongly maintained that it was up to the residents of Arsal to uncover the perpetrators.
The predominantly Sunni town of Arsal has been supportive of the Syrian opposition, providing a haven for refugees and fighters. Most of the Shiite community of the northern Bekaa Valley supports Hezbollah. Some clansmen Sunday held Arsal’s residents responsible for the attack.
Arsal residents had swiftly condemned the attack. Contacts have been ongoing since Sunday with the aim of uncovering the details of the crime.
Sectarian and clan tensions had reached a “climax” after the incident, said Sheikh Mohammad Zeaiter, a clan leader from Qasr. He said that “awareness and wisdom” were needed in reaction to the incident, as well as in identifying the perpetrators.
Speaking on behalf of the Amhaz clan, Sheikh Nabil Amhaz urged politicians to give the required political cover for security forces to arrest the perpetrators, while warning that the situation could get out of hand quickly.“We were able to control the situation today and called on the families to exercise restraint and wait for the assailant or assailants to be identified so that they alone get punished and no one else gets punished unjustly,” he said in a news conference held in the afternoon.
“But if the Lebanese Army and security forces do not assume their role ... and enhance their presence in the region and deploy along the border then things will get worse and we will not be able to prevent strife in the region,” Amhaz added.
“We will not be dragged to strife but we also cannot accept to keep silent over the killing of our sons in such a way,” he added.
Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam denounced the killings and called on the families of the victims and residents of the Bekaa Valley to exercise restraint.
Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora condemned the “suspicious criminal act” that targeted the four men but said tensions in the Bekaa Valley were the result of Hezbollah’s participation in the Syria conflict.
President Michel Sleiman also followed up on the security situation in the Bekaa and was briefed by Lebanese Army chief Maj. Gen. Jean Kahwagi on the details of the incidents and the measures the Army was taking.
Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel also warned against escalating violence in Lebanon after the attack, and suggested turning the eastern Bekaa Valley into a military zone.
Charbel said the security forces were working hard to identify the assailants behind the attack and arrest them.
Grand Mufti Mohammad Rashid Qabbani also denounced the killings and urged the Lebanese to be careful in confronting plots to incite strife in Lebanon.
In a statement issued from Dar al-Fatwa, Qabbani said that the “criminal killings across Lebanon are attempts provoke sectarian strife in the country.