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Syrian tensions spark clashes, worry in Lebanon's capital

May 21, 2012 |  9:53 am

BEIRUT -- Two people were killed and more than a dozen others wounded in overnight street battles in Beirut between groups that support and oppose Syria's rulers, raising fears that Lebanon could be drawn into the conflict of its larger neighbor.

The official National News Agency reported two people killed and at least 18 injured in fighting between Sunni Muslim gunmen opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and supporters of the pro-Syrian Arab Movement Party in the majority Sunni neighborhood near the Beirut Arab University.

The clashes went on until about 3 a.m. Monday when the army intervened. The incident highlighted how the crisis in Syria can spill over the border into Lebanon's charged political and sectarian landscape.

The clashes came hours after a Sunni cleric who supported the 14-month-old uprising against Assad in Syria was shot dead at an army checkpoint in northern Lebanon on Sunday. An aide to the cleric also was slain.

Protesters angry over the killing of Sheik Ahmed Abdel Wahed blocked roads with burning tires. Unrest later spread to Beirut, where tires burned in several neighborhoods. An investigation reportedly was launched into the sheik's death and Lebanese officials and religious leaders have called for calm.

The situation in Beirut had eased by Monday but tensions remained in areas of the north where the sheik and his aide were buried. The NNA reported gunfire during the cleric's burial ceremony and said a road leading to the country's western Bekaa region was blocked by burning tires.

A report by the Associated Press said thousands of people took to a square outside a mosque in the cleric's hometown of Bireh to participate in the funeral. Gunmen fired in the air as a sign of mourning amid shouts of "Down with Bashar" and accused the Syrian president of trying to bring his own country's crisis to Lebanon.

Lebanon is sharply divided along sectarian lines and remains equally divided on the Syrian crisis both on the street and political levels. Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group, and other factions back Assad, a member of Shiite-related Alawite sect. The majority of Sunni groups want to see his regime ousted.

The violence in the capital comes after a week of Syria-linked clashes in the northern city of Tripoli between Sunnis and Alawites, which left at least eight people dead and dozens injured. The fighting erupted shortly after the arrest of Shadi Mawlawi, an Islamist and outspoken critic against Assad.

Syria maintained a substantive military presence in Lebanon for 29 years until withdrawing troops in 2005.  But the nation has maintained a strong influence over its smaller neighbor. Four gulf countries, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, have issued travel warnings for Lebanon amid fears that the security concerns could increase.

Sunday night's clashes also motivated pro-peace activists.  A Facebook page has been set up calling for a pro-peace demonstration in downtown Beirut later on Monday. The organizers of the event, dubbed "Say No To War ... We Want Peace in Lebanon,"  are asking people to come to Martyrs Square in downtown Beirut with candles and Lebanese flags; by mid-afternoon local time, 1,500 people had responded saying they would attend.

The overnight fighting on Sunday and into Monday marked the most serous violence in Lebanon since May 2008, when clashes erupted between Sunnis and Shiites, an incident which brought the country to the brink of civil war.


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-- Alexandra Sandels

Photo: Sunni Muslim gunmen attend the funeral of Sheik Ahmed Abdel Wahed and his aide in their hometown Bireh, north of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on Monday. Credit: Joseph Eid / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images