Violent clashes broke out Sunday between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in the capital, leaving one man dead from gunshot wounds at a time when tensions throughout Lebanon threaten the country’s fragile sectarian and political balance.
Tension has been running high in Lebanon, particularly since Friday when Hezbollah supporters began an open-ended sit-in in Beirut in an effort to bring down the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.
Saniora, emboldened by Arab and international support for his U.S.-backed government, vowed on Sunday to stay in office despite the ongoing protests.
Amid the sound of revolutionary and nationalist songs blaring from protesters’ tents set up in the heart of Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, a Mass was held at Saniora’s office in memory of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel who was assassinated by gunmen in a Beirut suburb last month.
Show of solidarity
The service appeared to be a show of solidarity with the government, which draws its support largely from Sunni Muslims and Christians who oppose involvement in the country’s affairs by neighboring Syria.
A few yards away, a rival Mass organized by supporters of Michel Aoun, a Christian leader allied with the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, was held at the St. George Cathedral.
The clash in Tarik Jdideh occurred as a group of Hezbollah supporters were returning from Beirut’s downtown and passed through the Sunni neighborhood.
Police officials said the two sides threw stones at each other, then shots were fired, killing Ahmed Ali Mahmoud, a 20-year-old Shiite. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the press.
At least 10 other people were slightly injured elsewhere in West Beirut in similar clashes.
Hezbollah, an ally of Syria that is backed by many Shiite Muslims and some Christians, contends the fight is against American — not Syrian — influence, saying the United States now dominates Lebanon in the interests of Israel.
Saniora warned that any attempts by Hezbollah’s supporters to storm his office, ringed by hundreds of police and soldiers, tanks and armored vehicles, would lead to “a major and serious problem.” The prime minister, a Sunni, appeared to be cautioning against the possibility of open fighting between Sunnis and Shiites.
Addressing the flag-waving protesters in central Beirut, pro-Hezbollah speakers vowed to continue the campaign to remove Saniora from power.
“We will not leave until the government is changed,” former Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh, an ally of Syria, told the crowd.
The anti-Syrian coalition pledged to confront what it called “a coup” by pro-Syrian groups to undermine Lebanon’s independence after last year’s withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country after three decades of domination.
Israel warns of risk of war
In Jerusalem, Israeli officials on Sunday warned that the fall of Saniora’s moderate government could lead to the establishment of an Iranian proxy state on Israel’s northern border and increase the probability of war between the two nations.
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, meanwhile, said the league could not afford to adopt “a spectator’s stand” on the fast-moving developments in Lebanon.
“The Arab world, cannot ... sit and just watch Lebanon. Lebanon is an important component of Arab nations. The stability in Lebanon and moving towards a solution that would bring about a sure future for the country is one of our concerns,” Moussa said after arriving in Beirut for talks leaders from the rival factions.
The internal political tension began escalating when six pro-Hezbollah ministers resigned from the Cabinet last month after Saniora and his anti-Syrian majority in parliament rejected the group’s demand for a new national unity government that would effectively give it and its allies veto power.