LEBANON: Deadly clashes erupt in Beirut, rattling the night with gunfire [Updated]
At least two people were killed and several others wounded when clashes broke out between members of the militant Shiite group Hezbollah and a group known as the Ahbash, a conservative Sunni movement with roots in Sufism, in the Beirut neighborhood of Bourj Abu Haidar on Tuesday night.
A spokesman for the Ahbash, which is known officially as the Assn. for Islamic Charitable Works, moved quickly to downplay the political and sectarian ramifications of the incident.
"This was an isolated incident that could have happened anywhere, in any street," Abdel Kader Fakhani told local news station Al Jadeed. "It escalated very quickly into something nobody wants."
Hezbollah official Mohammad Fawaz and another official from the Ahbash, Ahmad Jamal Omairat, were confirmed killed as of 11 p.m., with several other individuals suffering serious injuries, including bystanders, according to reports.
[Updated, Aug. 25, 1:40 a.m. PDT: News agencies are now reporting that four people have been killed in the violence.]
Machine gun fire and rockets could be heard in the capital for several hours until the Lebanese army was able to take control of most of the area and issued a warning that gunmen would be shot on sight. As of 11:30 p.m., the fighting appeared to be quelled.
The clashes erupted as Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah delivered a speech calling on the Lebanese government to solve the country's energy problems by building nuclear power plants.
During a midnight drive through the city center, soldiers could be seen in armored vehicles stationed at key intersections. Normally lively streets ordinarily full of drivers and pedestrians taking advantage of the late-night Ramadan hours were dark and empty.
Local newscasters were initially at a loss to explain a possible reason for the clashes between Hezbollah and the Ahbash, as the two groups are political allies.
But fears of a Sunni-Shiite schism have been running high lately. The deadly incident comes against a backdrop of political tension over reports that Hezbollah members will be indicted by the investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a major Sunni patron-politician.
While Hezbollah is known to be the most capable paramilitary group in Lebanon, the Ahbash, which was supported by Syria when it controlled most aspects of Lebanese politics, has lost considerable clout in recent years.
-- Meris Lutz and Borzou Daragahi in BeirutPhoto: A gunman carries a rocket-propelled grenade launcher during clashes between the Shiite Hezbollah militia and supporters of a Sunni Sufi sect in the mixed residential area of Bourj Abu Haidar near central Beirut. Credit: AP