x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Lebanese town tense after killing of imam

Tensions run high in north Lebanon as an army investigation into the killing of a Sunni imam continues as more Syrians escaping the violence flee across the border.

Lebanese soldiers on patrol in Tripoli today.
Lebanese soldiers on patrol in Tripoli today.

AL BIREH, LEBANON // From this hillside town in the northern Lebanon district of Akkar, Syrian villages can be seen in the valley below.

Residents said heavy gunfire is regularly heard echoing up into the foothills, a constant reminder of the conflict in Syria raging just a few kilometres away.

Thousands of Syrians have escaped the violence and fled to Al Bireh and surrounding villages since the uprising against the regime of the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, began 15 months ago.

Now some fear the town has been dragged even closer to the bloodshed, following the killing of Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Wahed, who was shot dead on May 20 by Lebanese soldiers at a nearby military checkpoint.

Shootings at checkpoints are rare in Lebanon and the killing was made more alarming because the victim was a well-known Sunni imam.

The army is investigating the killing, which triggered a fierce reaction from the community and led to demonstrations as people burnt tyres and blocked roads.

Sectarian clashes have also taken place in Tripoli as well as in Beirut, where gun battles between those opposed to the Al Assad government and others from pro-Syrian regime groups left two people dead. It was some of the worst fighting in the capital in four years.

Sympathies for Syria's uprising are strong in some northern Lebanese villages including Al Bireh, where the flow of mourners visiting the Abdul Wahed family home has not stopped since the imam was killed.

In an airy sitting room, Abdul Wahed's father, Mohammed, a frail man in his 80s clad in a dark grey thobe with a black and white kaffiyeh scarf wrapped around his head, was greeted by relatives and friends.

While there are still many unanswered questions about the killing, some say Abdul Wahed was targeted, perhaps because of his support for the many Syrians who have taken shelter in the Akkar region. There are now an estimated 26,000 Syrian refugees across Lebanon, according to the United Nations, most of whom are in the north.

"My brother can't stand seeing people who are poor and in need," said Khaled Abdul Wahed, 50, who was visiting Lebanon from his home in Sydney, Australia, when his brother was shot. "When refugees came from Syria, he would help them."

The Abdul Wahed family said the father of four young children was respected and admired in the local community and beyond.

"He was a mediator for the area who would help people solve their problems. He's a very, very good man. A very special man," Khaled Abdul Wahed said as tears ran down his face. "I still don't believe, I can't believe he's dead."

Two weeks after his death, an uneasy calm had settled in Al Bireh, but there is a sense it would not take much to trigger further violence.

Just a few kilometres south in Tripoli, fighters have battled since Friday.

Clashes between fighters from neighbourhoods with opposing loyalties in the Syrian conflict have left at least 13 people dead.

While some members of his family believe Abdul Wahed was targeted, for now they are keen to stress they are waiting for the findings of the army's investigation before assigning blame.

"Everyone is calling me every day, and I say: 'We have to wait'," said Khaled Abdul Wahed. "We love Lebanon. This is my country and I don't want to see it broken."

Ala'adin Abdul Wahed, 40, was travelling in the same car when his brother and another passenger, Mohammed Merheb, were shot and killed at what he said was a randomly set-up checkpoint. He maintains soldiers fired when Abdul Wahed tried to turn the car around after an altercation at the checkpoint.

"It's a tense situation here now of course. People are just waiting for the investigation," Ala'adin Abdul Wahed said.

"Every time things get tense in Syria, they get tense here. At the end of the day, we will get justice for my brother's death."