The Lebanese army promised decisive action to quell unrest linked to the Syria conflict as gunbattles flared in the capital, Beirut, and elsewhere yesterday after the assassination of a senior intelligence officer last week.
The army command urged political leaders to be cautious in their public statements so as not to inflame passions further.
It issued the warning after troops and gunmen exchanged fire in Beirut’s southern suburbs yesterday morning, wounding five people, while protesters blocked roads with burning tires.
In the northern city of Tripoli, four people were killed, including a nine-year-old girl, and 12 wounded in clashes overnight and in the morning, security and medical sources said.
The violence heightened fears that the civil war in Syria next door was spreading into Lebanon, upsetting its delicate political balance and threatening to usher in a new era of bloodshed between Lebanese allies and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Lebanon has been boiling since Friday after Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan, an intelligence chief opposed to the Syrian leadership, was assassinated in a car bombing.
Many politicians have accused Syria of being behind the killing and angry protesters tried to storm the government palace after Hassan’s funeral on Sunday.
Opposition leaders want Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati to resign, saying he is too close to al-Assad and his Lebanese militant ally Hezbollah, which is part of Mikati’s government.
“The last few hours have proven without doubt that the country is going through a decisive and critical time and the level of tension in some regions is rising to unprecedented levels,” the army said in a statement.
“We will take decisive measures, especially in areas with rising religious and sectarian tensions, to prevent Lebanon being transformed again into a place for regional settling of scores, and to prevent the assassination of the martyr Wissam al-Hassan being used to assassinate a whole country,” the statement said.
Troops guarded traffic intersections and government offices yesterday, with barbed wire and concrete blocks protecting buildings.
Beirut was noticeably quieter than usual as people stayed at home.
Lebanon is still haunted by its 1975-1990 civil war, which made Beirut a byword for carnage and wrecked large parts of the city.
Since then it has undergone an ambitious reconstruction program and enjoyed periods of economic prosperity due to its role as a trading, financial and tourist center. All that is now threatened.
The army statement appealed to all Lebanese to act responsibly and “not to let emotional reactions control the situation.” Troops would stamp out any violence, it said.
The clashes in Beirut on Monday morning took place on the edge of Tariq al-Jadida, a Sunni Muslim district that neighbors Shiite Muslim suburbs in the south of the capital.
Residents had earlier reported heavy overnight gunfire around Tariq al-Jadida between gunmen armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
In Tripoli, a nine-year-old girl shot by a sniper was one of three people killed in overnight clashes there. Nine people were wounded, medical and security sources said.
The sources said the two dead men were from the Sunni Muslim district of Bab al-Tabbaneh and were killed after gunmen there exchanged rocket and gunfire with the mainly Alawite neighborhood of Jebel Mohsen.