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Conflict Rooted in Syria Spreads to Lebanon’s Capital (NY) TIMES) By NEIL MacFARQUHAR BEIRUT, LEBANON 05/22/12) Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/22/world/middleeast/syrian-unrest-sparks-gun-battles-in-lebanon.html?_r=1&ref=world&gwh=3BACCE053DE745F23951D8358C030886
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BEIRUT, Lebanon — Gun battles between Lebanese factions supporting and opposing the Syrian government spread to Beirut on Monday in the most serious outbreak of violence in Lebanon since the Syrian uprising began, leaving several people dead and the country more tense than ever in its effort to avoid the conflict next door.
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The fighting overnight in Beirut resulted in the expulsion of a small pro-Syrian faction, the Arab Movement Party, from a largely Sunni Muslim neighborhood in the southern part of the city. The first-floor apartment that housed the party was burned, with bullet holes pockmarking the exterior and the carcasses of burned vehicles blackening the street.
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“Too much pressure had built up,” said Abed Ali, a young resident in the area who also said he had watched the demonstration and chanting evolve into a firefight. “When there is tension in one area it spreads to others.”
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But after the military intervened, the neighborhood was calm, attracting mostly gawkers from around the city who came to take photographs with their cellphones.
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The potential for Syria’s violence to infect Lebanon has always been considered dangerous, given that the factional and sectarian differences are similar in both countries.
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Hezbollah, the heavily armed Shiite Muslim group, supports Syria, as do a smattering of smaller Shiite factions. Most Sunni Muslim organizations would like to see Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, overthrown. The overnight street fighting was between factions within the Sunni Muslim community, however, and did not directly involve Hezbollah.
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After the Syrian uprising started in March 2011, Prime Minister Najib Mikati of Lebanon proclaimed a policy of “disassociation” from either side in Syria, hoping to keep the fires from leaping across the border. Despite small periodic flare-ups in the northern city of Tripoli, the policy has largely worked, with politicians mostly containing their statements.
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But there are widespread suspicions that Syria, whose army was deployed here for nearly 30 years until 2005 and which retained strong ties with the security services, has been manipulating its allies here to feed the fighting.
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The immediate cause of the clashes was the killing of two anti-Syrian Sunni Muslim clerics on Sunday by the army at a checkpoint near Tripoli, already a tinderbox this month with a reported nine people killed and dozens wounded in clashes pitting a neighborhood of Alawites, the same sect as Mr. Assad’s, against an adjacent Syrian Muslim neighborhood.
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The events leading to the clerics’ shooting remained unclear. After an altercation with a soldier at the checkpoint, they tried to speed away in their Range Rover and the soldier opened fire, according to local accounts. The usual military procedure is to shoot out the tires of such vehicles, and it was not clear why that was not followed.
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The northern town of Bireh held a sullen, angry funeral for Sheik Ahmed Abdul-Wahid, who lived there and was the more senior of the two clerics killed. Numerous mourners shown on TV were armed, and the crowd chanted against both Mr. Assad and Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader.
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Mr. Mikati acknowledged that the army was involved and called for an immediate investigation. He said “appropriate action” would be taken and urged calm between the army and the people of the northern city of Akkar, where Sheik Abdul-Wahid was a well-known religious figure.
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“Just as the military sometimes make fatal errors, inevitably politicians can make fatal errors as well,” Mr. Mikati said after meeting with top security officials. “We all have to cooperate to avoid falling into such errors.”
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The Lebanese Army issued a statement expressing its regret. Three officers and the 19 soldiers at the checkpoint at the time of the shooting were detained pending the investigation, the national news agency reported. Demonstrations erupted afterward in mainly Sunni Muslim neighborhoods in both the north and in Beirut, with youths rolling burning tires onto the roads and igniting trash containers to block traffic.
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A battle with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades erupted in the southern Beirut neighborhood of Tareek al-Jadeedeh when supporters of the Future Movement, the party of the former prime minister Saad al-Hariri, attacked the offices of the Arab Movement Party, a small faction that backs Mr. Assad.
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Three people died and about 20 people were injured, Lebanese press reports said. Shaker al-Bijawi, the head of the Arab Movement Party, said two of the dead were members of his organization. He said he had received many death threats in the past but felt that on Sunday his attackers were under orders to assassinate him.
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“They have their opinions, we have ours,” he said in a telephone interview. “The problem is that they don’t want another opinion — why should we respect their opinion when they don’t respect ours? They keep insulting Syria and Bashar.”
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Mr. Bijawi said he was planning to organize a demonstration on Friday supporting Syria.
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The tensions have prompted four Arab countries — Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates — to warn their citizens not to travel to Lebanon, which could deal a large blow to the pending summer travel season, a main engine of Lebanon’s economy. Hwaida Saad contributed reporting. (Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company 05/22/12)
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