Lebanese army troops deploy in central Beirut after clashes between Hezbollah, Sunni group

By Elizabeth A. Kennedy, AP
Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Lebanese army deploys in Beirut after clashes

BEIRUT — Lebanese soldiers patrolled a Beirut neighborhood and residents stepped over spent bullet casings and broken glass Wednesday after deadly street battles between the Shiite Hezbollah group and a small Sunni faction killed at least four people.

Both sides said Tuesday night’s fighting — the worst Beirut has seen since 2008 — was a personal dispute that escalated into running battles with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades in the residential Bourj Abu Haider district, just outside the city’s bustling downtown.

Security officials said four people were killed — three Hezbollah members and a member of the conservative Sunni al-Ahbash group.

It was not clear why the fighting intensified so dramatically, but tensions among the Sunni and Shiite communities have been running high recently amid reports that Hezbollah members will be indicted in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, once the country’s top Sunni politician.

Abdul Qadir al-Fakhani, a spokesman for al-Ahbash, said his group was meeting with Hezbollah and the Lebanese army on Wednesday to ensure the situation does not flare up again.

Al-Fakhani and another witness said there was a commotion outside the Bourj Abu Haidar mosque about 20 minutes before the gunbattles began, with men fighting over a car.

“They were shouting and yelling insults at each other,” al-Fakhani told The Associated Press. “Then a group from Hezbollah approached the mosque, and they just kept coming. We were astonished,” he said.

Within some 20 minutes, both sides apparently gathered reinforcements and the street battles began.

Hezbollah did not comment beyond a joint statement issued by the two groups late Tuesday saying the incident resulted from a “personal dispute and has no political or sectarian background.”

The mosque was pierced by bullets and RPG fire, and cleaning crews were sweeping up the rubble Wednesday morning. At least one gunman holding an AK-47 was seen in a building across from the mosque.

Tuesday’s fighting was the worst clash here since May 2008, when Hezbollah gunmen swept through Sunni neighborhoods after the pro-Western government tried to dismantle the group’s telecommunications network.

The 2008 fighting brought the country to the brink of a new civil war, but officials insisted Tuesday’s clash was not the same sectarian strife that has bedeviled Lebanon for decades.

Lebanon’s government is an uneasy coalition of a Western-backed bloc and Hezbollah, which in just a few years has gained so much political power it now has a virtual veto over government decisions.

Al-Ahbash, or the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, is a deeply conservative Muslim group and a rival to many other Sunni groups in the country, including the prime minister’s Future movement.

The group’s name rose to prominence in the wake of the Hariri assassination. Two senior officials from the group were detained for about four years on suspicion of involvement in the killing, but were later released.

Like Hezbollah, al-Ahbash is pro-Syrian. They have feuded in the past over theological differences but were political allies whose candidates ran on the same lists during the 2009 parliamentary elections.

will not be displayed