Thursday, February 15, 2007

Tight security helps prevent widely feared clashes

Tight security helps prevent widely feared clashes
Head of isf says every single member of his force was on duty

By Nour Samaha and Muneira Hoballah
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Security forces had visibly beefed up their presence in and around Beirut Wednesday, as thousands of Lebanese Army soldiers and members of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) coordinated with each other in an effort to prevent clashes occurring at the Rafik Hariri memorial rally. Premier Fouad Siniora released a statement Wednesday thanking the Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Leba-nese Army, the ISF, and all security forces for their efforts and organization to guarantee the day passed without incident. Although the ISF could not confirm the exact number of the crowd, the head of the ISF, Brigadier General Ashraf Rifi, told The Daily Star that not a single member of the ISF was on vacation Wednesday, as all were deployed to ensure optimum security across the country. "We installed 23,000 ISF troopers up and down Lebanon, with between 5,000 and 6,000 based in Beirut and 2,000 specifically in the Downtown area." "All possible outcomes were studied carefully and plans of action were decided for each outcome, so we had all angles covered ... Obviously we increased security as a result of Tuesday's attacks" on two busses near Bikfaya, Rifi added. An ISF official, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed that preparations had been made months in advance. He added that a number of officers, specifically trained to deal with emergency situations, had been deployed Downtown. The Lebanese Red Cross was also on hand with 120 of its members present at the rally. They also had 17 ambulances and six cars prepared, and had pitched two tents to provide on-the-spot first-aid services. According to George Kitani, the national director for emergency medical services in the Lebanese Red Cross, 275 people needed first aid in the field. "Though there were no incidents between people at the rally, nine people were rushed to hospital for medical reasons ranging from cardiac arrests to diabetes," he told The Daily Star.

As the demonstrators poured into the city, helicopters hovered above the rally and two-tier checkpoints had been set up at the key entrance points to ensure maximum security. The army conducted routine searches on vehicles, while the police conducted rigorous body and bag searched. One police official at the checkpoint confirmed that security had been heightened as a result of Tuesday's bombings in the village of Ain Alqa, which left three dead. "As a general rule we always set up checkpoints and searches, but this time it has increased because of what happened," he told The Daily Star. All weapons, sharp objects, and materials deemed dangerous were confiscated.

The army and the ISF set up a large barrier between opposition supporters camped out in Riad al-Solh Square since December 1, and March 14 supporters attending the memorial to prevent any confrontations. The formidable barrier consisted of razor-wire fencing supplemented by rows of soldiers, ISF troopers, and Hizbullah security guards. Samer Kirdi, a volunteer member of the March 14 coalition's private security force, told The Daily Star that their priority was to protect the equipment that was being used for the day. "We are here to guard the equipment, like the sound system and machinery, against people who would wish to destroy them," said Kirdi. "If there are any problems or clashes between people," he added, "then we alert the army and the police, and let them deal with it." Movement from one side to another was completely prohibited by both the army and the ISF for the day.

Relatively few opposition supporters were in the Downtown area on Wednesday, but there was a marked increase in the number of Hizbullah's "Indibat" (Discipline) guards to hep with crowd control. Members of the force insisted that they did not want any problems with their political rivals. "Even if they [March 14 Forces supporters] throw bullets at us," said one Indibat member who spoke on condition of anonymity, "we will just throw back flowers."

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