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French Version

Suleiman promises speedy probe into riot deaths

Siniora mourns eight dead as 'martyrs of all the nation'

As a tense calm returned to Beirut's suburbs Monday after a bloody day of riots which left eight dead, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) said investigations into Sunday's clashes have begun and "will be conducted with the utmost seriousness and speed" to determine those responsible.

Speaker Nabih Berri hosted both the LAF's commander, General Michel Suleiman, and its intelligence chief, Brigadier George Khoury, at his residence in Ain al-Tineh Monday. Suleiman offered his condolences to Berri over those killed in Sunday's clashes, including Ali Hassan Hamza, an official with the speaker's Amal party.

The LAF commander told Berri that the military was launching a "serious and effective" investigation into the matter. Berri reportedly cleared his agenda of meetings for the next two days to focus exclusively on and follow up the investigations, meeting Monday with State Prosecutor Said Mirza.

Unidentified snipers fired at protesters and army troops Sunday afternoon at the Mar Mikhael intersection in Shiyyah as the army was moving in to disperse protesters and clear the road of burning tires. Politically, the incident spurred rival factions to trade accusations, each accusing the other of shooting at demonstrators.

A security source told The Daily Star that the army had detained three men, suspected snipers, who were seen atop one building located behind the Moallem gas station and the Mar Mikhael Church in Shiyyah.

A judicial source said that close to 50 protesters were rounded up on Sunday, but only 23 were officially arrested - for attacking army soldiers and pelting them with stones as they were trying to disperse protesters in Mar Mikhael. Some were arrested for trying to take weapons from soldiers and others for carrying weapons themselves, the source added.

A ministerial meeting at the Grand Serail on Monday decried Sunday's riots and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora described the eight protesters who died as "martyrs of all the nation." Monday was declared an official day of mourning with schools and universities closed.

Information Minister Ghazi Aridi, reading out a statement at the end of Monday's meeting, called on all factions to be aware of the delicate period the country was going through and said the government supported the security forces and the military leadership and awaited the results of investigations. Aridi said no leniency must be shown to those found responsible for the shootings Sunday.

Among those shot and killed in Mar Mikhael were Mahmoud Ali Hayek, 17, from the village of Adloun; Abdel-Amir Mansour, 23; and paramedic Mustafa Amhaz, who was killed while doing his duty. Mohammad Arslan, who was wounded in the melee on Sunday, died of his injuries at Sahel Hospital the following day.

An eighth person killed in Sunday's violence, Ali Hassan Maatouk, was run over by a firetruck in Nabatieh which was rushing to put out tires set ablaze by protesters in the nearby village of Kfar Tibnit. Maatouk died of his injuries in hospital. The army reported at least 29 injured in all. Most of the injured were taken to Sahel, Bahman and Hayat hospitals.

An army statement issued Monday said the events which took place on Sunday targeted both citizens and the army

and only serve the interests of Lebanon's enemies, "in particular Israel, which did not distinguish between an army barracks and buildings in Dahiyeh during the summer 2006 war."

The statement called on the families of those protesting to demand improvements from the government to act responsibly and practice restraint when taking to the streets. The army also called on all news media to act in the spirit of national responsibility and place the public interest above all else in its coverage of events, by conveying a balanced view of events.

Hizbullah on Monday demanded to know who was behind the shootings Sunday that killed several of the protesters. The party warned that any cover-up would be a threat to stability and civil peace in Lebanon. "Those martyrs who fell and were wounded, were they hit by the army's bullets and if so, who issued the order for the soldiers to open fire?" a Hizbullah statement asked, adding: "Or was there another party [responsible], and who was that party?"

Hizbullah said it held the authorities responsible for "every drop of blood spilled" Sunday.

Lebanese Forces boss Samir Geagea, addressing a press conference in Maraab Monday, denied that members of his party were involved in the shootings at Mar Mikhael. Geagea said he doubted that Sunday's protests were "impulsive and unplanned," reasoning that no such spontaneous protest had taken place on a Sunday afternoon before, and without women or children, only young men age taking part.

Geagea said that the Lebanese Forces were the first to demand a full and thorough investigation. "Those martyrs who fell are innocent, but the events put into motion were not innocent. There are groups working to overturn the system, to bring down the government and paralyze the army," he asserted.

"If they burn people's cars, do they get electricity? Is it reasonable in 2008 for women to be seen carrying their children and running from Ain al-Rummaneh after seeing these young men coming at them and to see shooting all around them?" Geagea asked of the demonstrations widely attributed to persistent power cuts. "I am not with shooting at protesters, but we need a minimum degree of law and order," the Lebanese Forces leader said.

A statement issued by the press office of parliamentary majority leader MP Saad HaririSaad-Hariri-Profile Sep-07 said the events in the southern suburbs Sunday show the futility of haphazardly resorting to street protests and thrusting civilians into the fray, which only results in further tensions and confrontations.

Hariri expressed his sorrow for the fall of innocent victims who "did not choose their fate freely as much as they found themselves in a situation for which they would not have desired martyrdom."

The statement added that the army must not be subject to attrition or to blackmail and citizens must not use protests over living conditions as an excuse to confront the army.

The protests Sunday extended to the Bekaa, the South, the Sidon road and other areas of Dahiyeh, as well as the Mar Elias district of Beirut.

Life creeps back to normal at site of bloodshed

Life returned hesitantly on Monday to the area around the Mar Mikhael intersection, a typically busy junction connecting the capital with the city's eastern suburbs. The remains of charred tires, a burned-out car, rocks and dirt piled on the sides of the road stood amid a desolate scene, a silent testament to the previous night's clashes.

The busy road saw less traffic than usual, even for a weak day. Lebanese Army soldiers and armored personnel carriers were evident, especially at entrances to access roads leading into the mainly Christian Ain al-Rummaneh suburb. Most shops were closed; some, however, had already started to clean up and fix the damage, mostly shattered glass, broken signs and flagging spirits.

Abdel-Latif Qabbani, who runs a small sweets shop in Shiyyah, saw the protesters moving up from Msharafieh toward Galerie Semaan. "Most were armed with hand guns and sticks, they didn't damage any cars on our street, only on the road leading up to Galerie Semaan and Baabda," said Qabbani, who opened his shop five years ago, long after the 1975-90 Civil War ended and with it the infamy acquired by such locales as Galerie Semaan.

"No one benefits from such actions. The sad thing is in a few days from now people will forget all the poor people who died," Qabbani said, adding that the area remains on edge and tense. "It still needs a few days before things really go back to normal."

Dina, the manager of a gas station located just meters from the Mar Mikhael intersection along the road leading up to Galerie Semaan, saw the chaotic scene unfold before her eyes. "The bullets were flying from every direction. My only concern was my children's safety and how

I will escape with my life, how to get to my car without being shot at," said Dina, who brings her baby with her to work.

"The army started coming after 4 p.m., they were everywhere. With all the thick smoke no one could tell where the shots were coming from," Dina said, "It's like Iraq, exactly like Iraq. We are afraid to go out of our homes as we do not know if we will come back or not."

Dina's husband Samer had the car ready to go at a moment's notice just in case the clashes flare up again. "The protesters were burning tires near the gas station. The whole place could have gone up in smoke and with it our livelihood," said Samer, who added that he had already found work abroad.

Daily Star employee Alice Sader was attending her daughter's wedding at the Mar Jiryes Church in Shiyyah on Monday as the protests escalated. "The bride hadn't arrived yet when we heard the first few shots. We thought they were firecrackers," Sader said. The wedding party then received a call in the middle of the ceremony from a friend telling them of the deteriorating situation in Mar Mikhael.

"We could not see the fires. We only heard shots as we were inside Shiyyah far from the clashes," Sader added. "We rushed the ceremony. It was over in half an hour, then we went down to the church hall for the reception, again for a quick half-hour. It didn't feel like a wedding."

Beirut 29-01-2008
The Daily Star

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