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Sunni-Shiite feud claims wife's life

Tensions between supporters of rival political factions turn into violence on the Beirut streets resulting in the deaths of innocent victims.

Zeina Miri's relatives and friends carry her coffin covered with the Islamic flag during her funeral.
Zeina Miri's relatives and friends carry her coffin covered with the Islamic flag during her funeral.

BEIRUT // When Zeina Miri saw armed men coming down the street in Beirut's Aisha Bakkar neighbourhood on Sunday night, she immediately recognised them as members of the largely Shiite Amal movement, which had been clashing regularly with the mostly Sunni residents of the neighbourhood. Within seconds of crying out from her apartment balcony to warn her husband, who was guarding the end of another street along with his neighbours, a gun was fired and Miri was struck dead, leaving behind her husband and five daughters.

Sectarian tensions had begun mounting in the neighbourhood last week as Amal's leader, Nabih Berri, was re-elected to his fifth term as speaker of parliament. Despite the lack of surprise in his selection, which was part of a deal to install Mr Hariri as prime minister and reduce tensions between the bitter rival camps, Mr Berri's supporters had taken to the streets of Beirut wildly firing weapons into the air in celebration. The combination of stupidity and gravity led to at least one death and more than a dozen people wounded as the spent bullets fell back to Beirut's crowded streets.

In response, a few days later, as Mr Hariri was elected by the new parliament, his supporters also took to the streets. Some reports in other Sunni neighbourhoods indicated that celebratory gunfire ensued, but in Aisha Bakkar, the festivities were limited to fireworks and loud pro-Hariri music, according to more than a dozen witnesses and local police. It was the music that started it on Saturday. An Amal supporter already notorious in the neighbourhood for his role in May 2008 sectarian violence, when Hizbollah and Amal took over several predominately Sunni neighbourhoods by force, began arguing with children playing the music. A fist-fight ensued and the Amal member was forced to retreat. He returned an hour later with additional supporters, but they were beaten back by the local residents. By Sunday night, Amal's gunmen were armed and looking to avenge their losses.

Munir Rajab, Miri's husband, was standing at the entrance to an alley often used by Amal members from a nearby neighbourhood to enter Aisha Bakkar, when the Amal members, who entered the street from another angle, flanked them. According to witnesses and a forensic investigation by the Lebanese police, three gunmen were close to the balcony Miri was watching the clash from - although she and her husband lived in another neighbourhood, they ran a fruit and vegetable stand across from her family home and spent a great deal of time there, according to her family. A fourth, a man known to the family, was behind the other three and took the deadly shot at an angle that police investigators believe must have been intentional.

One eyewitness, who asked not to be named, described the scene. "While I was hiding in the building entrance I saw the four Amal militants walking forward towards the direction of Zeina's building," the witness said. "They stopped when they saw Zeina on the balcony, [she was] yelling to the men on the street telling them to hide; telling them the Amal militants are here behind you. At this moment the [fourth] Amal man shot at her or in her direction."

The dead woman and her husband are part of Lebanon's small but tight-knit Kurdish minority and, within days, members of the extended clan had arrived from around the world to pay their respects, and, according to several family members, to take blood revenge for the killing. Despite efforts by Mr Hariri's Future Movement party and the Lebanese military to defuse the situation, the widespread belief on the streets of Aisha Bakkar is that the shooter will escape justice because of his prominent role in Mr Berri's political party.

On Wednesday night, the Lebanese Army announced that all 21 of the participants in the fighting had been arrested, but both police and neighbourhood sources say that the actual shooter, who has been identified, has not been arrested. Police requested that the name of the man and his position in the Amal Movement be withheld for fear of revenge attacks during their investigations. However, a relative of Mr Rajab said both political and religious figures have begged the family not to take revenge for the killing, but the family offered only two weeks for the legal system to work.

"Saad Hariri promised us they will find the criminals and give them the punishment they deserve," said one the relative. "We are waiting now because we respect their promise but after two weeks if nothing happens we will have to take action and do what we have to do." Another resident of the neighbourhood said the Kurdish ancestry of the victims will make it hard for Mr Hariri's mostly Arab movement to control the desire for revenge as Kurds tend to identify themselves ethnically before religiously.

"These men are Kurdish," said a Sunni Arab neighbour. "They are not thinking in the mentality of a Future Movement now. As we know them here in the neighbourhood, they will take their revenge in their own hands." For his part, Mr Rajab is far too devastated to even receive the condolences of the military, which has surrounded the area with armoured vehicles to head off any potential revenge attacks. As he sat surrounded by his family and mourners, two Lebanese military officers attempted to console him on his loss.

"Mr Officer please go with the guys they will tell you who shot her," he said, before shouting to his friends. "Come and take the officer, show them where they live, take them to Zaroub-Hamoud street and show them where the criminals are. We all here know who killed my wife. My wife is dead now, please don't try to calm me down nothing is going to compensate me." And with that, he burst into tears. After a few moments, the officers awkwardly walked away, ignored by the angry crowd.

mprothero@thenational.ae