Sunni-Shi’ite clashes in Beirut

At least 3 dead; LAF deployed to help calm worst violence since 2008.

Lebanon clashes (photo credit: Associated Press)
Lebanon clashes
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Shi’ite and Sunni groups traded machine gun fire and grenades in Beirut on Tuesday, killing two people and wounding several others just blocks from a busy downtown packed with tourists.
Lebanese soldiers cordoned off the area and prevented journalists from entering, but the crackle of sniper fire and popping of rocket-propelled grenades were audible.
RELATED:Analysis: The Hariri tribunal goes hunting for Hizbullah
Gunmen stood on the corners and peered down alleyways in the neighborhood while families ran for cover. Ambulances rushed to the scene, and an elderly man was loaded into a stretcher, clutching his neck.
The shootout erupted between supporters of the Shi’ite Hizbullah and a Sunni conservative group in the mixed residential area of Bourj Abu Haidar near Beirut’s downtown, security officials said.
Hizbullah was battling the pro-Syrian Sunni Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, known as the Al-Ahbash group, which has a history of feuding with the Shi’ite group, they added.
The officials said Muhammad Fawaz, the local Hizbullah commander in Bourj Abu Haidar, had been killed along with his subordinate Ali Jouaz.
Fawaz Omeirat of Al-Ahbash was also killed in the fighting.
According to initial reports, the car in which they were traveling got into the crossfire between Hizbullah supporters and the Sunni group. According to Lebanese paper Al-Akhabr, the clash started when Al-Ahbash members tried to bar Hizbullah men from passing through a neighborhood where the Sunni group holds control.
Shortly afterward, Shi’ite supporters of Hizbullah and sister organization Amal set fire to a Sunni mosque in the nearby neighborhood of Basta, according to an AP photographer.
Salah, a 40-year-old who did not wish to give his last name, said he had been inside the Bourj Abu Haidar mosque when he heard a commotion outside and people screaming, “Calm down.”
Then, 20 minutes later, he heard gunshots and bullets slamming into the mosque.
“They were shooting at the mosque. I think these people are crazy. They must have gone home to get their friends,” he said.
Salah stayed inside with others before fleeing during a lull in the fighting.
Sunni fighters were reportedly holding the bodies of the slain Hizbullah members and were given a three-hour ultimatum to transfer them to Hizbullah.
The fighting took place as Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah addressed supporters, calling for increased military assistance for the Lebanese Army from Iran and its Arab neighbors.
The army cordoned off the area to restore calm.
Local Lebanese media said rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns were used.
Lebanese Minister of Defense Elias Murr published an edict forbidding people to carry firearms in the street. It was the worst clash since May 2008, when Hizbullah gunmen swept through Sunni neighborhoods of Beirut after the pro-Western government tried to dismantle the group’s telecommunications network.
The fighting at the time brought the country to the brink of a new civil war. Lebanon has a history of deadly sectarian strife.
Tensions have been running high in recent weeks over signs a UN tribunal could indict Hizbullah members in the 2005 killing of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Nasrallah has said he has information that the tribunal will implicate Hizbullah members, but he calls the tribunal an “Israeli project” that has no credibility.
AP and Bloomberg contributed to this report.