Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Lebanese Army, police appeal for calm on streets of capital

Lebanese Army, police appeal for calm on streets of capital
By Rym Ghazal Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Both the Lebanese Army and police appealed for calm on the streets of Beirut Monday after they had been turned into what officials described as a "cat and mouse playground" due to clashes and riots across the capital. "We have been turned into cats, chasing mice that appear here and there, causing trouble," the head of the Internal Security Forces, Brigadier General Ashraf Rifi, told The Daily Star. Clashes erupted over the past two nights in predominantly Sunni neighborhoods. Around 1 a.m. Tuesday, The Daily Star was on hand as at least 20 youths in black masks and colorful head bands cut off the highway leading to Rafik Hariri International Airport, throwing rocks at passing cars. "It is the first time rioters tried to block off the airport, and so the army was deployed to deal with the situation, and within a few minutes, everything was back to normal and the roads are now safe and open," said Rifi. After The Daily Star witnessed the Internal Security Forces' vehicles abandoning the site, leaving the matter to be dealt with by a better-equipped army, Rifi explained that police units were too small to deal with the incident. Meanwhile, police reported clashes for a second night in a row in the Tariq al-Jadidah area late Monday. Two people were wounded in the clash on Monday night, after witnesses told The Daily Star that demonstrators in Downtown Beirut - enraged at the site of 20-year-old Ahmad Ali Mahmoud's coffin being carried through the crowds - ran toward the mostly Sunni area carrying sticks. Police also reported that about 60 demonstrators vandalized several shops and three cars in the Corniche al-Mazraa area on Monday night before the army dispersed the crowd. The general directorate of the ISF released a statement on Monday in which it asked protest organizers to prevent their followers from provoking clashes after two consecutive nights of street fights that have left one person dead and at least 15 injured. "We request that the demonstration organizers make sure their supporters stick to proper demonstration measures and refrain from harming residents and passers-by, or else they will be detained and referred to the courts," said the statement. Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa met with the heads of security departments and heads of security in various municipalities on Monday and discussed the latest security concerns and measures to be taken across the country.

Lebanese Army Commander General Michel Suleiman was quoted in several local newspaper as warning the government that daily protests and riots might get out of control. "The absence of political solutions, along with the recurrence of security incidents, particularly those with sectarian tinge, drains the army's resources and weakens its neutrality," Suleiman was quoted as saying. "This weakness will make the army unable to control the situation in all areas of Lebanon." Suleiman's statements highlighted the military's concern that the political crisis between the Sunni prime minister, Fouad Siniora, and the Shiite-led opposition was approaching dangerous levels. Thousands of troops are deployed across the capital where, since Friday, opposition groups have been conducting daily demonstrations to topple Siniora's government. Suleiman's reported remarks were exceptional in that army officers are not allowed to make political statements, but according to a military source contacted by The Daily Star, Suleiman had made those comments, and was making a general plea for "political intervention as soon as possible" before the situation gets completely out of hand. The military source also informed The Daily Star that the army commander will be issuing a statement within the next 24 hours, with comments on the latest security developments in the country. Suleiman toured the hotspots on Monday and met afterward with the prime minister and Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir. In an earlier statement, Suleiman indicated that the army was not going to fracture along sectarian lines as it did during the 1975-90 Civil War, which pitted Christian soldiers and militiamen against Muslim troops and militiamen. - With agencies

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