Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Spooked Beirutis fear new 'balloon-borne' Israeli plot

Spooked Beirutis fear new 'balloon-borne' Israeli plot
Hysteria reaches capital after weekend panic in south

By Rym Ghazal
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Renewed panic spread among some Lebanese Monday, as a black balloon with a spider drawn on it landed in the heart of a Beirut neighborhood, a day after Israeli balloons landed in South Lebanon. "It is a terrorist act against our peace of mind," Khaled Qamaryeh, owner of a store in the neighborhood of Salim Salaam, told The Daily Star. His shop is located just a few meters away from where the balloon landed.

The panic over balloons began over the weekend, when several fluorescent green and orange balloons branded with the Hebrew word Ha'ir (The City) drifted into the South from Israel. Five civilians were allegedly hospitalized with nausea, breathing difficulties and dizziness after coming into contact with the balloons, but tests have thus far turned up no toxic sustances and an Israeli newspaper said they were part of an advertising campaign. "I didn't go near it as I was worried it may be filled with poison," Qamaryeh said of the balloon found in his neighborhood. "I don't trust the Israelis." Around 9:30 a.m. on Monday, a handful of residents discovered what they called "an unidentified balloon," near one of the roasteries in the area and immediately called in the Internal Security Forces and the army to investigate its contents. "The balloon in Salim Salaam did not contain poison or dangerous substance," the head of Internal Security Forces, Ashraf Rifi, told The Daily Star. Police and forensic experts were sent to the site and quarantined the area as they tested the balloon for dangerous gases or other substances. "We don't know where the balloon came from, but it is different in color and style from the earlier balloons discovered in the South," said Rifi. While there is no evidence of poison, Rifi said there is a question over the "timing." "Israeli balloons never used to drift over to Lebanon, so why now?" he asked. "I believe it is an intentional act by Israel to cause further panic in a country already on edge," he added.

Resigned Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh slammed Israel Sunday for what he called, "a creative" new way of violating Resolution 1701, and called on the UN to put a stop to it. "It wasn't enough that they violate our skies daily with their drones and warplanes, now they sending over their balloons to terrorize the Lebanese people," he said. Residents interviewed in Salim Salaam by The Daily Star are now suspicious of balloons, with many still believing the one that was placed in their neighborhood to be "poisonous." "Israel is capable of anything, and whether or not there are actual toxins, they are always waging a psychological war against the Lebanese," said Mohammad Sharqawi. Sharqawi also believed that the officials "would lie" to keep the people from panicking. "Israelis have a history of targeting the civilians, and so why not now through balloons?" he asked.

Preliminary tests run by Italian troops in the UNIFIL and by experts in the Lebanese Army tests showed "no evidence" of dangerous substances in the balloons. "There is a sort of panic now in the country from any balloons," the army source told The Daily Star. "Now every time a child has a birthday party and some balloons are released," the source added, "we get a call or two of panic from nearby residents." A white balloon was found in the southern town of Jouwaiyya near Tyre, with the words "you are the first," written in English. The source said more comprehensive tests on the Israeli balloons will continue for the next two days to check "for chemicals and minerals" that the balloons may be carrying or are made of. Israeli daily Haaretz said the balloons were part of a promotional campaign for a Tel Aviv based newspaper.

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