x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Man killed in anti-Hizbollah protest in Beirut

Men in black attack a demonstration against Hizbollah's involvement in Syrian civil war.

Men in black suspected to be Hizbollah supporters clash with protesters in front of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut on Sunday. AP Photo
Men in black suspected to be Hizbollah supporters clash with protesters in front of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut on Sunday. AP Photo

BEIRUT // One person was killed and at least five others injured in clashes during an anti-Hizbollah protest outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut yesterday morning in the latest violence in Lebanon linked to Syria's civil war.

The army confirmed that a protester was shot and killed near the embassy in Bir Al Hassan, a pro-Hizbollah neighbourhood of the Lebanese capital.

"As a political convoy arrived to Bir Hassan to have a sit-in in front of the Iranian embassy … clashes started which led to the injury of one of the citizens who later died," the army said.

"The military forces in the area intervened to disperse the protesters and restore calm."

About 30 protesters are believed to have been attacked by supporters of Hizbollah.

The Shiite militant group and its patron, Iran, support the regime of Bashar Al Assad against predominantly Sunni rebels in the civil war and many in Lebanon fear the conflict will spill over the border.

The attackers wore black and had yellow armbands - the colour of Hizbollah's flag.

The protester who was killed, Hashem Salman, was a member of the lesser-known Shiite-dominated Intima party, which organised the protest, raising speculation that the violence was Shiite against Shiite.

By early afternoon the area was quiet, but several jeeps with mounted guns and carrying soldiers guarded the road leading to the embassy.

People in the area said they had heard shouting and gunfire but did not know where it came from or who was involved in the clashes. One young man said shots were fired in the air from inside the Iranian embassy.

Another protest against Hizbollah's involvement in Syria was held in Beirut's central Martyr's Square, where about 100 protesters gathered to show their opposition.

Hizbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, confirmed two weeks ago that he had sent thousands of his men across the border to fight for with Assad regime forces.

Speaking at the demonstration, Elie Abdel Nour, a member of Lebanon's National Liberal Party, said Hizbollah was pulling his country into Syria's civil war.

"We are here today because Hizbollah is intervening in Syria and this is putting all our country at risk and putting us in a war we don't want to be in," Mr Nour said as he and fellow party members waved gold and white flags bearing the silhouette of a Lebanese cedar tree.

"I don't want Sunnis going to fight with the Sunni people in Syria and Shia people, like Hizbollah, going to fight with the Shia people in Syria. Lebanon is Lebanon, and Lebanon comes first," he said.

His sentiments have been echoed here often in recent weeks as Syria's strife appeared to be creeping across the border.

"There is a division in the country. That's not a secret," said Kamel Wazne, founder of the Centre of American Strategic Studies, a think tank in Beirut.

Mr Wazne said that while there were deep political divisions in Lebanon between those who support the Syrian opposition and those who support Mr Al Assad, most Lebanese wanted nothing to do with the Syria's war.

However, parts of the country have already become embroiled in the conflict. The northern city of Tripoli has turn into battleground as anti-Assad Sunni and pro-Assad Alawite militias fire guns and even grenades into each other's neighbourhoods. The Lebanese army has been deployed in the city but has been unable to restore calm.

Beirut has been spared from the violence but the army was deployed on the streets of the capital yesterday amid the clashes and protests. Tanks and jeeps closed off the city centre to traffic and the army laid barbed wire fences.

Both the Syrian opposition and the international community have called on Lebanon to stop Hizbollah fighters from entering Syria, but even if there were political will to clamp down on the party, Lebanon's national army is no match for the well-armed, Iranian-backed Shiite militia.

"The international community says, 'stop Hizbollah', but everyone else is already in Syria," said Mr Wazne.

Weam Alshaar, a Sunni Muslim from south Lebanon, blamed Hizbollah for the country's problems.

"Hizbollah is stronger than the army - they have everything. The army is nothing in Lebanon. Just sitting like this on the street, looking around," Ms Alshaar said at the protest with tanks just 100 metres away. "We don't want the war to come to Lebanon again. We want freedom, we want peace."

Along with its military might, Hizbollah has a strong popular support in Lebanon and is seen by many - both Shiite and other sects - as defenders of the country.

When Mr Nasrallah confirmed two weeks ago that his men were in Syria, he said it was both to support Mr Al Assad and to defend Lebanon's borders. He urged parties not to bring the fighting into the tiny country of 4 million, but within hours of his speech rockets had hit a Shiite neighbourhood in south Beirut.

"Everyone is talking of civil war. I don't think there is an appetite for this," said Mr Wazne.


* Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse