At least two people were killed in Beirut as clashes between supporters of Syria’s government and opposition members spread to the Lebanese capital for the first time since Syria’s uprising broke out last year.
More than a dozen people were also wounded in overnight fighting that was triggered by the killing of Ahmed Abdel-Wahid, a Lebanese Sunni Muslim cleric and opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He was killed at an army checkpoint near the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said. Tripoli witnessed clashes last week between Sunni groups and Assad supporters from his Alawite sect.
The prospect of the unrest in Syria spilling over to its smaller neighbor, which has suffered a history of sectarian violence, has long alarmed analysts. Fitch Ratings said in March that the possibility of disruptions to the Lebanese economy were high.
“The risks in Lebanon are huge,” said Peter Harling, director of the Egypt-Syria-Lebanon Project at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank. “Syria has played a key role in Lebanon; often times a destabilizing role but also a regulating one. The Lebanese have made no progress in emancipating themselves from the Syrian role.”
Syria is the only land route for exports and tourist arrivals into Lebanon -- the most indebted Arab nation. It has acted as a main power broker between Lebanese political groups since the end of World War II, using force at times to sway the balance in favor of its allies.
Lebanon’s army deployed in the neighborhood of Tariq Jedideh after last night’s clashes, which left charred stores and cars riddled with bullets, television footage showed. A group of Sunni clerics accused army personnel of killing Abdel-Wahid in the town of Akkar, according to a statement read live on MTV television. The army started an investigation into the incident, it said today.
The suspected involvement of the army brings the military, which has acted as a national symbol of unity since the end of the civil war in 1990, to the fore of the brewing crisis that has prompted Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait to urge their citizens to leave the country. Lebanon’s tourist arrivals declined 24 percent in 2011 “partly because of a fall in visitors from the Arab world,” Fitch said in a report March 13.
Solidere, Lebanon’s biggest publicly traded real estate developer, saw its A shares fall for the fourth day, declining 0.8 percent to $13.08 at 2 p.m. in Beirut, the lowest level since 2005. The company is controlled by the family of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, whose son Saad Hariri heads the anti-Syrian Future movement.
Future supporters blame Syria and its domestic allies for Rafiq Hariri’s assassination in 2005, an accusation that Assad’s regime has repeatedly denied. The killing sparked mass protests that forced Syria to pull out its troops from Lebanon 29 years after it sent them in to restore order during the country’s civil war that lasted until 1990.
The yield on Lebanon’s 5 percent dollar bonds due October 2017 rose for a sixth day, gaining three basis points, or 0.03 percentage point, to 5.030 percent, the highest level since April 25, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The yield had fallen to a record low of 4.9156 percent on May 11, the data show.
Lebanon is rated B at Fitch, five levels below investment grade. While the effect of Syria’s uprising on Lebanon has been limited, the “potential for disruption is high,” the company said in March.