x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Thousands of Lebanese troops try to stop poll violence

The Lebanese armed forces deployed nearly 20,000 security personnel throughout the city of Sidon yesterday in an effort to separate supporters of two rival factions.

Women walk past soldiers outside a polling station in Sidon yesterday.
Women walk past soldiers outside a polling station in Sidon yesterday.

SIDON, LEBANON // The Lebanese armed forces deployed nearly 20,000 security personnel throughout the coastal city of Sidon yesterday in an effort to separate supporters of two rival factions that had clashed on several occasions in the weeks leading up to yesterday's municipal elections.

Despite the massive security presence, which included two battalions of army infantry and special forces units backed by dozens of armoured personnel carriers, supporters from the prime minister Saad Hariri's movement repeatedly clashed with partisans loyal to a local power broker, Osama Saad. Mr Hariri's cousin, Ahmed, is heading a list of candidates attempting to remove Mr Saad's representatives from Sidon's municipal government.

Local television reported one person had died and at least a dozen were injured. Hundreds of young men from both sides were arrested as soldiers fanned out throughout the city in an effort to quell the tensions that have been rising between the political rivals since an effort to agree on a compromise list of candidates failed earlier in the week, leaving the elections wide open for one side to dominate the other.

The clashes, along with heavy-handed tactics by the army, which is widely seen as poorly trained and ill-disciplined, led local residents to fear that Sidon, a normally quiet majority Sunni city south of Beirut could explode into violence once the results are announced and the military lockdown is eased. The results of the vote were expected to come in over night. "The army can do anything they want, they have been told by the government to shoot anyone that causes trouble here today," said Mohammed Hanafi, a local resident, who watched in disgust as a large cluster of soldiers pointed automatic weapons at a family watching a street clash from their apartment balcony. The soldiers could be heard repeatedly threatening to shoot anyone seen filming the clashes and in one instance cocked their automatic weapons and demanded that one resident throw a camera-phone from a window to the soldiers or they would open fire.

"Sidon could explode," Mr Hanafi said. "Either the army will shoot someone and start a war, or they'll leave and both sides will attack each other." One masked young man, who appeared to be a supporter of Mr Saad, said that he had taken part in several small fistfights earlier in the day but hoped to hurt some of Mr Hariri's supporters after nightfall. "No problem, it's still early," he said as he and several comrades retreated away from a corner being taken over by an army unit.

On three occasions yesterday, Lebanese military forces threatened to arrest, shoot, or beat a photographer from The National for merely carrying a camera near their deployments. At least two local newspaper photographers had their cameras either confiscated or smashed by the troops for filming activity on the street. After one clash between supporters of Mr Hariri and Mr Saad near a high school, at least a dozen bound and hooded prisoners could be seen being transported from the scene in the back of military trucks, while three men were taken to nearby hospitals after encounters with security forces.

One man, who witnesses said had been beaten to death by soldiers armed with wooden sticks, was loaded into an ambulance. His body was limp but military personnel on the scene refused to answer questions about the man's condition, while police stationed nearby prevented reporters from entering the local hospital. Local television later reported he had died. Just before polling closed at 7pm local time, security forces were forced to intervene in a larger clash between supporters of the two sides outside a polling station within the Lebanese-Kuwaiti School near the city centre. There were also reports of sporadic automatic weapons fire crackling through the streets as darkness approached.

The heavy security presence and overall ill pall in the city stemmed from a series of incidents earlier last week. On Thursday, supporters of Mr Saad attacked workers setting up a rally for Mr Hariri's party and later rampaged through the seaside cornice section of the town targeting stores thought to be owned by Hariri supporters. And on Friday, a grenade was found across from the home of Mohammed al Saudi, a political ally of the Hariri family.

Mr Saad on Thursday accused the Hariri family of vote buying and using the family's large fortune to fly expatriate supporters into Lebanon from around the world, skewing the voting. "We call on the cabinet and the interior ministry to act quickly to prevent any violations and to put an end to intimidating acts in order for the elections to run smoothly," Mr Saad said, but Mr Hariri's supporters responded that the allegations were designed to force the cabinet to cancel or postpone the elections they expected to win.

The interior minister, Ziad Baroud, who is widely seen as politically neutral in this polarised country, came to Sidon at midday to reassure voters that security was being maintained, despite a number of small incidents. He also assured Mr Saad's supporters that their complaints would be investigated. "We are keen on everyone's safety ? All electoral complaints will be dealt with," he told local reporters.

Yesterday was the third of four municipal elections being held to elect local mayors and municipal council members. The elections are being held according to geography on consecutive Sundays to maximise the number of security forces available to contain Lebanon's enthusiastic electorate. mprothero@thenational.ae