Lebanese Clashes Spread to Beirut After Security Killing

Lebanese Clashes Spread to Beirut After Security Chief’s Killing
Protesters gather on motorbikes at a road block of burning tires in Tripoli. Photographer: Ibrahim Chalhoub/AFP/Getty/Images

Lebanese troops fought with gunmen in Sunni Muslim areas of Beirut following the assassination of a senior security official that is being blamed on neighboring Syria.

Sniper fire rang out in southeast Beirut during the morning rush hour yesterday after overnight clashes that left one dead and nine wounded, according to the official National News Agency. In the northern city of Tripoli, four people have been killed and 18 people injured since Oct. 21, NNA said. A man died from wounds he sustained during an exchange of fire in the southern town of Wadi Zaina, the agency reported.

The army said it will take “firm measures” to prevent sectarian violence after security forces clashed with protesters in the capital. “Security is a red line,” the army said in a statement. “The fate of the country is at stake.”

The violence is the most serious in Lebanon since the beginning of the 19-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The country is divided into pro-and anti-Assad groups that have fought intermittently, mostly in Tripoli, raising fears of a spillover of the Syria crisis.

The U.S. is concerned that the upheaval in Syria could spread across the border into Lebanon and other neighboring countries, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said during a briefing yesterday in Washington.

Oil prices fluctuated, with crude for November delivery falling 1.5 percent to $88.73 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent for December settlement gained 14 cents, or 0.1 percent, to $109.58 a barrel on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange.

Risk Premium

“The movement in the price of Brent crude shows that a substantial political risk premium remains in the global benchmark,” Edward Bell, commodities analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said in an e-mailed statement.

“Violence in Lebanon should have little impact on the oil market’s supply fundamentals but the prospects of a broader regional conflict -- dragging in Iran or threatening Iraq’s oil production -- appears to have spooked investors to locking in futures,” Bell said. Any disruption to oil transit routes such as the Suez Canal or Strait of Hormuz “would contribute to a momentary upward shift in oil prices,” he said.

The unrest began when Brigadier-General Wissam al-Hassan, who headed the information branch of the Internal Security Force, and his bodyguard were killed in an Oct. 19 bombing. Colonel Imad Othman has been appointed to replace al-Hassan, NNA said.

Funeral Ceremony

Toner said yesterday that a team from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation would travel to Lebanon to help with the probe of the bombing that killed al-Hassan.

Members of Lebanon’s anti-Syrian March 14 coalition blame Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose Cabinet is backed by the Shiite Muslim militant Hezbollah group, an Assad ally, for the killing.

Thousands of people attended a funeral ceremony for al-Hassan in Beirut Oct. 21 in which politicians from the anti-Syria March 14 coalition accused Mikati of ties to Assad and called on him to step down.

Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora lashed out at Mikati during the funeral, saying that the Lebanese people “will no longer accept the continuation of the cabinet of assassination.”

The army brought in tanks and other reinforcements to the Beirut neighborhoods of Tareek al-Jadida, Cornich al-Mazra and Qasqas and later managed to open most roads that had been blocked with burning tires and trash cans. Troops shot and killed a Palestinian man who had opened fire at soldiers in Qasqas, the army said in a statement carried by NNA yesterday.

Grand Serail

At least 15 police officers protecting the Grand Serail, Mikati’s headquarters, were injured on Oct. 21 in scuffles with protesters who tried to storm the premises, according to a statement e-mailed by the premier’s office. March 14 supporters have pitched tents near the Serail and say they plan an open-ended sit-in until he resigns.

Some protesters held posters showing Mikati and Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, suggesting both were implicated in the bombing.

Lebanon’s anti-Syrian activists are maneuvering to exploit Hezbollah’s difficulties as its traditional allies face internal unrest: Assad is fighting an armed uprising while President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran contends with a currency crisis and domestic unrest.

The Syrian opposition has accused Hezbollah of sending fighters to shore up the Assad regime and of firing at the rebels across the border.

‘Toughest Predicament’

Almost two years since the start of what became known as the Arab Spring, Hezbollah is becoming engulfed in the Middle East turmoil.

“The crisis now certainly has the potential to be the toughest predicament Hezbollah has ever faced,” said James Petretta, principal analyst at Maplecroft, a U.K.-based risk consultant. “The conflict in Syria and the pressures mounting on Iran will certainly test Hezbollah’s resilience and maturity, and this will only get harder for the organization.”

The fighting is also hurting the Lebanese economy. Pierre Achkar, president of Lebanon’s Syndicate of Hotel Owners since 1995, said hotel cancellations were reported among tourists who had been expected to visit Lebanon during the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday that starts later this week.

“If the clashes continue, we expect more business to be lost,” said Achkar in a phone interview. He said some hotels and restaurants are laying off staff while others are closing down parts of their business.

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