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Card game dispute turns into sectarian clash in Lebanon

Card game turns into a fight between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon, leaving one dead and six wounded.

BEIRUT // Lebanon's security forces remained on alert yesterday after a dispute over a card game turned into a sectarian clash that left one man dead and six wounded, in a tense intersection between Christian East Beirut and the southern suburbs dominated by Shiite Muslims. The stabbing death of George Abu Mahdi, 30, on Monday in the predominately Christian Ain al Roumanieh neighbourhood by a group of young men affiliated to the Amal Movement, a Shiite party, from the adjoining neighbourhood of Shiyah was the first major outbreak of violence between Lebanon's Christian and Shiite communities in more than two years.

Lebanese army and police forces were quickly despatched to the two seething communities on Tuesday to prevent additional violence. A source with Hizbollah security forces in the Shiyah neighbourhood called the next 48 hours critical for Lebanon's security. "The army is everywhere and that is a good thing," said the official, who commands a Hizbollah security team in the area but is not authorised to speak to the media. "But the next two days are very dangerous. The youth in Ain Roumanieh are out for blood. If they respond, it could take us at least two days to return things" to normal.

Although Hizbollah is politically aligned with the more secular Amal and maintains a strong security presence in the area, the commander denied that his men were involved. "Two Amal youth were gambling and drinking beer with Christian youth in a cafe when they began to argue over cards," the Hizbollah commander said. "The two boys lost the fight and immediately returned to Shiyah, where they called their friends to go and get revenge. More than a dozen of them entered Ain Rouminieh on their scooters and attacked the cafe."

His account was confirmed by a security official who spoke with Agence France-Presse. "Young men on scooters came from Shiyah and began circling near a restaurant in Ain al Rummaneh," the spokesman said. "A heated exchange with local residents ensued and knives were used, leaving one dead and four injured, all from Ain al Roumanieh." The Lebanese army despatched to the area arrested four suspects. One of them was identified as Hussein Merhi, but sources from the Shiite community in Shiyah say the killers have left Beirut for their villages to avoid arrest.

Although the government immediately claimed the killings had no sectarian overtones, the Hizbollah official said religion and political tensions between the Shiite opposition and the majority, which is led by Sunni and Christian parties, was certainly a factor. "I was called to the scene by my commanders to investigate and the Amal youth asked Hizbollah for help," he said. "We told them 'No. Your people are out drinking and gambling and getting into fights with the Christians when all of Lebanon is nervous. Enough.'"

He said Ain al Roumanieh's history as a bastion of Christian militias makes the situation far more dangerous than periodic clashes between Shiites and Sunnis. "Those Christians boys are much tougher than the Sunnis; I don't think the Amal kids understand this. [The Christians] have a lot of training and weapons from the civil war. Hizbollah does not want to see violence with these people," he said, pointing out that even when Hizbollah and Amal took over West Beirut in May 2008 to rid the area of Sunni militias, they intentionally avoided antagonising their Christian rivals for fear of sparking a wider conflict.

The majority coalition, often known as March 14, issued a statement condemning the killing and calling for justice for the dead man's family by "arresting the murderers and perpetrators who attacked a safe neighbourhood in Ain al Roumanieh". mprothero@thenational.ae