|Day 5 : Lebanese dare to hope worst is over
|Clashes mar cease-fire in druze areas
The Lebanese Army deployed heavily in the Aley district southeast of Beirut late Sunday following fierce clashes between gunmen loyal to Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) leader MP Walid Jumblatt and fighters from Amal and Hizbullah, leaving eight people dead.
The army was eventually successful in ending most of the clashes, which raged on until 9 p.m. despite a decision to implement a cease-fire that was supposed to be put in effect at 6 p.m. However, fighting later broke out in several part of the Chouf Mountains.
The cease-fire agreement, brokered by Democratic Party leader Talal Arslan, a Druze rival of Jumblatt, proposed handing over the situation in Aley to the Lebanese Army.
A security source told The Daily Star that the cease-fire was not immediately implemented because PSP supporters refused to lay down their arms before the deployment of army troops.
Five days of violence across Lebanon between government and opposition supporters has left at least 42 people dead, a security official told AFP Sunday.
"From the day the unrest started, 42 people have been killed and 164 wounded across the country," the official said, adding that the toll might rise as a result of clashes in Druze areas southeast of the capital.
Heavy machine-gun fire and loud explosions echoed through several villages in the district of Aley, including Aaytat and Baysur. Intense fighting also took place Choueifat.
Jumblatt, a member of the ruling bloc, urged Arslan, an ally of Hizbullah, to put areas in the mountains witnessing heavy fighting under army rule.
"Civil peace and halting the destruction are paramount," Jumblatt told LBC television, urging his supporters to lay down their weapons.
Arslan also called on opposition forces to stop the fighting.
"I call on fighters in the opposition to exert self-control and immediately cease-fire," he said.
Arslan also said he would contact the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, General Michel Suleiman, to agree a strategy for the army to take control of the area.
The clashes between PSP militants and opposition gunmen started in the mountain town of Aytat around 2 p.m., security officials said. It later spread to the nearby towns of Kayfoun, Qamatiyeh, Bchamoun and Choueifat, they added.
There were no initial reports of casualties.
The clashes came a day after Hizbullah accused PSP men of kidnapping three of its members and killing two of them.
"They were shot and stabbed with knives and their bodies were thrown in front of the Iman Hospital in Aley," Hizbullah said in a statement, adding that the fate of the third was unknown. "Hizbullah holds Jumblatt personally responsible for the fate of the third person still missing," the statement added.
Jumblatt did not expressly admit his supporters were responsible for the deaths but referred to "an unfortunate incident" and said he would take responsibility if claims that the victims were tortured proved to be true.
"Three people were killed. Two bodies were found and turned over to the army. One body remains missing and I ask the army and security forces to search for it," the MP told a news conference.
He called on the authorities to investigate and said if the torture claims were true "this is shameful" and that he would "personally take responsibility for it."
Jumblatt also said he hoped that the killings would not spark further bloodshed.
In Beirut, militants could no longer be seen on the streets and there was a heavy presence of army troops. However, some barricades put up by the opposition remained and the road to Beirut international airport was shut for the fifth straight day, paralyzing air traffic.
The opposition announced on Saturday it was ending its takeover of large swathes of West Beirut and handing over the situation to the Lebanese Army. However, a shooting at a funeral of a Future Movement supporter in the Beirut area of Tariq al-Jdeideh broke the silence in the capital, leading to the death of six people and the injuring more than 30 mourners.
A Lebanese Army spokesman said the owner of a scrap-metal shop near the route of the funeral procession had been arrested in connection with the shooting. The spokesman said the suspect, who was identified as Hussein al-Sabbagh, had been handed over to military police. The opposition denied any relation to Sabbagh.
Heavy clashes also took place on Saturday in Tripoli, where government supporters in the Sunni-dominated Tebaneh district exchanged rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine-gun fire with opposition followers in the Alawite-dominated Jabal Muhsin area, security officials said.
The clashes were over by morning, when the Lebanese Army deployed on the streets between the warring factions.
One woman was killed.
Also in the North, fierce clashes in the Akkar region killed 14 people, including civilians, when Future Movement supporters attacked an office of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). "The headquarters of the [SSNP] in Halba fell to the Future Movement forces."
Security sources told The Daily Star on Sunday that the 14 casualties were 11 SSNP members and three Future Movement supporters.
The attack on the SSNP headquarters in the area was believed to be retaliation for the burning down of a Future TV building in Beirut on Friday.
In a separate development in Sidon, two people reportedly affiliated with the opposition were shot in their car after a fight broke out between supporters of the sides.
The incident broke out when Future Movement supporters were gathering in the city's Nejmeh square, shouting out anti-Hizbullah slogans.
The two victims were identified as physician Saber al-Qadiri and his wife Iman.
The couple's daughter was also wounded in the shooting.
Calm returns to Beirut after army reverses Cabinet orders
Relative calm prevailed in Beirut on Sunday after the Lebanese Armed Forces intervened in the ongoing dispute between the government and the opposition, reversing two key Cabinet decisions that had sparked the recent wave of violence.
The Lebanese Amy said on Saturday it had frozen two measures taken by the government against Hizbullah, and called for all armed militants to withdraw from the streets.
"The army command calls on all parties to [help restore calm] by ending armed protests and withdrawing gunmen from the streets and opening the roads," the military said in a statement.
It said that the head of airport security, who had been reassigned from his job, would remain in his post pending an investigation and that the army would look into a communications network set up by the militant group.
"The head of airport security, Brigadier General Wafiq Shukair, will remain in his post until appropriate procedural measures have been taken after a probe," the statement said.
"As for the telecommunications network, the army will look into the issue in a manner that is not harmful to the public interest or the security of the resistance" against Israel, it said.
The military said it had taken these decisions in the light of a government request that it rule on these matters. The army statement came shortly after Prime Minister Fouad Siniora made a televised address to the nation.
Tuesday's decision to reassign Shukair and launch a judicial probe into the communications network set off bloody clashes that saw opposition forces briefly seize control of West Beirut. The army's announcement was seen as a way out of the crisis.
The opposition announced on Saturday it was ending its takeover of large swathes of West Beirut after the army revoked the government measures.
In a speech from the Grand Serail on Saturday, Siniora had urged the army to restore order and vowed his government would hold firm in its faceoff with opposition militants.
"I have called on the army to live up to its national responsibilities without hesitation or delay and this has not happened until now," Siniora said in a televised address to the nation that marked his first reaction to the sectarian clashes. "Democracy has taken a stab to the heart ... but the state will not fall to those behind this coup."
The Sunni premier called on the army to clear militants from the streets immediately, as well as the Hizbullah-led protesters who have been holding a sit-in outside his government's headquarters since December 2006.
He said Hizbullah's weapons could no longer be considered legitimate as they had been turned on Lebanese. "We believed them when they said they would not turn their weapons internally," he said. "But Hizbullah must know that the power of weapons will not terrorize us.
"They cannot continue like this and we never doubted that Hizbullah had the ability to take over the city of Beirut as it did in a matter of hours. We will not go back on our decisions and convictions even if they make more use of their weapons than they already have," he said.
Shortly after the Lebanese Army's statement, Amal MP Ali Hassan Khalil said the opposition would withdraw its gunmen from the streets while maintaining its civil disobedience.
Speaking to reporters in Ain al-Tineh, Khalil accused Siniora on Friday of launching a coup against the "resistance" by seeking to control its communications network.
On Sunday, former Premier Omar Karami said the clashes in Beirut were "saddening."
"Even though we are part of the opposition and we have long countered the policy of the Future Movement," Karami said, "we still consider that Future Movement was treated in an inappropriate manner in Beirut."
He also said "irresponsible measures" taken by the Siniora government "against the resistance" had "sparked outrage."
Karami saluted the efforts of the army to contain clashes and rejected all criticism against it.
The Daily Star