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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 23 January 2019

Fun for some, deadly for others: celebratory gunfire rattles Middle East on New Year’s eve

Dozens of bystanders were wounded in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, while welcoming the new year

Firing weapons at celebratory occasions is commonplace in the Middle East. Reuters
Firing weapons at celebratory occasions is commonplace in the Middle East. Reuters

As the new year dawned on the Middle East, dozens across the region were wounded by a rattling tradition – celebratory gunfire.

Firing stray bullets into the sky to welcome the arrival of the new year is a popular practice across the world. However, it can be highly dangerous.

Bullets fired into the air return to the earth at up to 91 meters per second, according to the Saginaw Police Department in Michigan. Recent research has indicated that 61 meters per second is enough to penetrate the skull.

Bystanders around the world were reported to have been wounded by celebratory gunfire in places including Pakistan, the US and the Philippines this New Year's Eve.

At least 19 people were injured by stray bullets in the Pakistani capital of Karachi on Monday night.

The number of injuries are just as high in the Middle East were the popular practice regularly results in the death or injury of bystanders.

In Iraq, where it's a long-standing tradition to fire guns into the air at occasions like weddings, funerals and even sports matches, a total of 104 people across the country were wounded because of celebratory gunfire and firework-related incidents on Monday night, local media reported, citing the Iraqi health ministry.

Most of the incidents took place in Baghdad, which recorded at least 47 injuries, including 10 resulting from stray bullets.

This health directorate of the Al Rusafa district in Baghdad put the total number of those wounded in the area at 78, including at least 20 who were injured by stray bullets.

In war-torn Syria, the conflict did not stop people from resorting to gunfire to celebrate the new year.

In the coastal Syrian city of Latakia, at least 15 people were wounded by celebratory gunfire, according to the activist-run Aleppo Media Network.

Unconfirmed reports claim that a young girl was killed by a stray bullet, according to the Hama Now news outlet. One man also reportedly lost one of his fingers.

Videos posted on social media networks purported to show heavy gunfire and fireworks in Latakia overnight, with the sound of blasts echoing across the city.

In Lebanon, where celebratory gunfire is a deadly and common phenomenon – at least five people were injured because of stray bullets, including a 10-year-old in the southern city of Tyre who was shot in the neck, according to Internal Security Forces (ISF).

Victims also included two people in the northern city of Tripoli, a man in the northern district of Akkar and one other bystander in the Beirut suburb of Ouzai, according to local media reports.

Security forces say they have arrested suspects believed to be responsible for the open-air shooting.

Although still a concern, the figure is significantly lower than previous years, partly because Lebanese security forces deployed in mass to prevent violations.

A spokesperson for Lebanon’s ISF warned against celebratory gunfire and said that around 13,000 security personnel were to be deployed across the country.

The Lebanese army said in a statement ahead of celebrations that legal action will be taken against anyone who shoots into the air to celebrate the New Year.

There are an estimated four million licenced guns in Lebanon, where celebratory gunfire is illegal according to a 1959 law that states "anyone firing in residential areas or in a crowd, whether their gun is licensed or not" faces up to three years in prison or a fine.

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Lebanon's police force says it has made hundreds of arrests of people firing in the air since 2016.

Although still prominent in the region, celebratory gunfire has attracted new scrutiny.

In Iraq, popular opinion seems to be slowly turning against the practice and officials have warned against celebratory gunfire ahead of large occasions such as elections or festive holidays.

The country's former prime minister Haider Al Abadi also promised to launch a campaign to encourage people to stop firing their guns at special occasions.

In Lebanon, security officials have been joined by party leaders, including Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah in denouncing the practice.

Joseph Mousallem, a spokesperson for Lebanon's ISF, has described celebratory gunfire as "a sick, fatal phenomenon".

One member of parliament has submitted a draft law increasing the jail time for such gunfire to up to 20 years, and the maximum fine to the equivalent of $12,500.

The bill has received support from various political parties, but it has yet to pass in parliament.

However, condemnation has done little to curb the phenomenon.

Updated: January 2, 2019 09:39 AM

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