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French Version

Spate of bombings snuff out Beirut nightlife (Daily Star)

Residents stay indoors as fears are further compounded by series of hoaxes

Beirut bombers, after having struck three times in the space of just over a week, have brought the Lebanese capital's normally bustling nightlife to a virtual standstill.

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"Madame, please, please, stay at home tonight. It's the fourth day," pleaded a taxi-driver with a foreign tourist on Wednesday.

The late-night bombings of Christian districts in and around Beirut have taken place at intervals of roughly four days since a first attack in the early morning hours of March 19.

Mayrig restaurant in mainly Christian east Beirut had only a handful of clients on Wednesday night, in sharp contrast to normal times when a reservation is a must for the upmarket dining spot.

"It was the same thing last Saturday night. We had been fully booked since the previous week, but one by one people phoned that day to cancel," said a waiter.

Later that same night, a bomb blast in an industrial area in Sad al-Boushrieh, north of the capital, wounded six people and triggered a huge blaze.

Huddled around television screens, Lebanese once again remembered the horrors of the 1975-90 civil war with their country in turmoil after the February 14 killing of the popular former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Washington has since urged the Lebanese authorities "to exercise their responsibility to the Lebanese people to provide for their security and to identify and bring to justice those responsible for these acts."

Lebanese police and security personnel have been out in force on the streets at night-time, with checkpoints set up in several Christian areas.

Across town in west Beirut, which is mostly Muslim, the Blue Note jazz club suffered the same fate on Tuesday night as jittery Beirutis waited to see if the "curse" of the bombings had been lifted.

Apart from the "fourth day" scare which this time failed to materialize, Beirutis have also been kept at home by a series of bomb hoaxes at shopping malls, rumors and unsigned leaflets warning of more attacks to follow.

"At night, my teenage son and daughter are avoiding public places. They are going to friends' houses only. Even then, they have to tell us of every move they make," said an east Beirut mother, Randa Chehade.

She said that even Monnot Street, a magnate for Beirut's trendy youth with its buzzing bars, nightclubs and restaurants, had grown silent since the bombers started to blight the nights.

Not to be thwarted, diehard nightlife-seekers are venturing further north, to Jbeil, on the Mediterranean coast some 40 kilometers from the center of Beirut.

With hotels also suffering from the insecurity, immigration authorities at Beirut International Airport have been waiving the normal $17 tourist-visa charge.

Amid the political crisis following Hariri's February 14 assassination, three unclaimed bombings between March 19 and March 26 have killed three people and wounded 17.

Opposition politicians have pointed a finger at the security services controlled by the government, accusing them of seeking to foment confessional unrest as Syria withdraws its troops from the country.

Tourism was an instant loser from the Hariri assassination. The number of visitors plunged 18 percent in February, according to official figures.

"We've seen a huge number of cancellations in February-March by European (tour) operators," said Liliane Nakkhal, owner of Nakkhal Travel, a leading travel agency.

Halfway across the world, Lebanese expatriates are just as worried about their homeland, constantly monitoring television screens to see what the future may hold.

For years Jaafar Kassim, a Lebanese mechanic living in London, has longed for the day Syrian troops who kidnapped and killed his two brothers would finally withdraw from his homeland.

But when he heard 2,000 Syrian troops had finally pulled out of eastern Lebanon over the last week, he was too worried for the safety of his family back home to celebrate.

"Anything can happen in a minute in Lebanon; it's like a volcano, a place where innocent people get lost among the politicians," said the 34-year-old Shiite Muslim from a Lebanese coffee house on London's Edgware Road.

Political instability and violence are well known to Lebanese expatriates, many of whom fled as a result of the country's civil war.

Last month's car bomb assassination of Hariri, followed by the three bombings and the street demonstrations, has sown instability all too familiar to the Lebanese abroad.

Just hours earlier, Kassim had received a U.K. residency visa after a seven-year legal fight. He had planned a trip with his English wife and children to visit his mother whom he has not seen for many years, but he has now put it off.

"I am Lebanese. I lived the civil war and no one knows history like the people who lived it," Kassim said.

"My brothers died in Lebanon and I will not take my children there until I know it's safe," he added.

Abboud Grimesty, 40, a deli manager who has three bullet wounds from the war, said he is once again frightened for the safety of his parents and sister he left behind 17 years ago.

"Their building was only 100 meters from the most recent bomb. They felt the building shake. As soon as I saw the news I phoned them and now I call almost every day," Grimesty said.

"I worry most about my sister Diana, she sells insurance policies, which means she's out on the road a lot," he added.

A Christian, he said fear of a return to civil war had united Lebanese exiles regardless of their religion or political affiliations back home.

In the past weeks he has attended protests at the Lebanese and Syrian embassies and outside Downing Street, alongside Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians and Druze.

Restaurant manager Abed Kerdaly, a Sunni Muslim, said the country's various religious groups had learned that "they cannot live without each other" - and that very fact would keep them from slipping back into violence.

"The war wasn't ours. These are old memories now," he said. "Lebanon will never go back into civil war."

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Beirut 01-04-2005
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