Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Relative normalcy returns to most of Lebanon after bloodshed

Relative normalcy returns to most of Lebanon after bloodshed
Military makes good on pledge to increase vigilance

By Anthony Elghossain
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: The situation in Lebanon continued to gradually cool down on Tuesday, the first day of broader Lebanese Army deployments aimed at restoring order in areas plagued by fighting since the eruption of clashes between pro-government and opposition factions last week. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) had announced on Monday that, as of Tuesday at 6:00 a.m., it would treat any overt armed presence as hostile and that it would resort to force, if necessary, to restore order across the country. "Army units will bring about an end to all violations ... even if this requires the use of force," the LAF said in a statement. Although fighting in Beirut died down overnight, opposition fighters were seen in several areas of the city. The capital is slowly returning to normalcy, but many schools and universities remained closed.

Battles involving machine guns, mortars and rocked-propelled grenades erupted shortly after 3:00 am Tuesday morning in the Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods of the northern city of Tripoli. Although early-morning sniper fire was reported in the mostly Sunni port city, clashes eventually eased. Meanwhile, a fragile truce was maintained in the Aley and Chouf districts, areas southeast of Beirut that saw clashes between opposition gunmen and armed Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) supporters. PSP leader MP Walid Jumblatt has designated his Druze rival, former Minister Talal Arslan, as an intermediary for negotiating a gradual phaseout of arms, but PSP fighters have refused to turn over their heavy weapons. While the PSP has now agreed to turn over all positions to the LAF, the army has not deployed fully in the region for fear of becoming involved in fighting. During a press conference Tuesday, Arslan said he was "still working on fulfilling the agreement with [Jumblatt]," adding that a PSP weapons handover "must be coordinated between the LAF and Jumblatt himself." Arslan also assured residents of the Chouf that "no one will enter [their] homes," adding that his faction "seeks to protect these mountains in order to return to dialogue" and is in agreement with Hizbullah secretary general Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on this account. Arslan then accused Prime Minister Fouad Siniora of clinging to his position at the expense of the security and prosperity of the Lebanese. "Let him resign and save the country more violence," Arslan said.

During an interview with Al-Arabiya television US President George W. Bush addressed regional aspects of the situation. He confirmed that the US Navy had deployed the USS Cole off the coast of Lebanon again, but said it was "part of a routine training mission that had been scheduled a long time before." Bush also expressed a desire to strengthen support for the LAF, saying "best way for us to help stabilize the situation and eventually allow this Lebanese democracy to go forward is [to] keep the pressure on Syria ... [and] bolster the capabilities of the Lebanese Armed Forces."

Violence between opposition and pro-government factions has resulted in the deaths of at least 62 Lebanese and the wounding of some 200 others. Several roads remain closed, including the main highway leading to Beirut's airport. As the situation on the ground continues to ease, the political dispute remains unresolved, pending the arrival of an Arab League delegation and the possible return to dialogue between warring Lebanese parties. - With AP

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