BEIRUT — The Lebanese army moved Monday to quell unrest following an outbreak of clashes in the aftermath of the politically charged funeral of a police official assassinated in a car bomb attack.
The army vowed to use “decisive measures" to insure stability and warned that security was a “red line” not to be breached. The military urged all parties to exercise restraint.
The armed forces generally command respect across Lebanon’s sectarian fault lines. But the nation is also home to sundry armed militias allied with political and religious factions.
Overnight clashes were reported in Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli, which has become a battleground for armed groups on opposing sides of the conflict in neighboring Syria. At least three people were killed in Tripoli, the national news service reported. The army said it shot and killed a man who opened fire on a patrol in the capital.
[Updated Oct. 22, 2:20 p.m.: Sniper fire reportedly continued in Tripoli during the day, raising the death toll to four. In Beirut, troops in armored vehicles were taking up positions at some strategic intersections and roads in districts where rival gunmen have engaged in skirmishes.]
The situation remained tense and some parents were said to have kept their children home from school, fearing more violence.
Many Lebanese blame Syria for a car bombing on Friday that killed Gen. Wissam Hassan, the nation’s police intelligence chief. Two other people were killed and scores were injured in the midday bombing in an upscale East Beirut neighborhood. The slain official was credited with uncovering an alleged Syrian plot to destabilize Lebanon. Syria has condemned the assassination and no proof has emerged publicly linking Damascus to the blast.
The bombing — the first major attack in four years in the capital — has fanned fears that a spillover of hostilities from Syria could lead Lebanon down a path of sectarian violence and instability.
Lebanon remains scarred from its 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990, and a series of car bombings and assassinations, many targeting anti-Syrian activists, that shook the nation between 2005 and 2008. Syrian troops occupied Lebanon for almost 30 years before pulling out in 2005 amid mass protests. But Syria remains a powerful presence in the governance of its smaller neighbor.
On Sunday, the state funeral for the slain police commander disintegrated into clashes as enraged mourners tried to storm the government palace in Beirut. Troops using tear gas and firing bullets into the air dispersed the demonstrators.
Opposition leaders have called for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, labeling his coalition government a pawn of Syria. Mikati said that resigning now would only cause a political vacuum and lead to greater instability.
[Updated Oct. 22, 2:20 p.m.: In Washington, the State Department said Monday that an FBI team was headed to Lebanon to assist the investigation of Friday’s bombing.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke with Mikati and "stressed the importance of all political leaders working together,” Mark C. Toner, a department spokesman, told reporters in Washington. He declined to comment on reports that the United States and its Western allies had encouraged Mikati to remain in office.]
The embattled prime minister has been praised in some diplomatic circles for his efforts to keep Lebanon insulated from the raging violence in Syria. His nation is split between groups opposed to and supportive of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The dominant force in Lebanon’s ruling coalition is Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite Muslim group closely allied to Assad. Lebanon's Sunni Muslim-led opposition has generally backed the rebel force fighting to oust Assad, which are primarily made up of Sunnis.
Both Sunni and Shiite volunteers from Lebanon have reportedly gone to Syria to fight for different sides in the conflict.
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— Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: Lebanese soldiers deploy Monday after overnight clashes between Sunni and Shiite gunmen in Beirut. Credit: Hussein Malla / Associated Press.