Army warns nation is 'on the edge' as gun battles rage

 

Beirut

Lebanese security forces warned that the fate of the nation is "on the edge" today as it raided militia hideouts and clashed with gunmen, after the assassination of a spy chief set off a cycle of violence underpinned by simmering sectarian tensions.

The army said it would take "decisive measures" to maintain the country's stability as gun battles in the streets of Beirut and militia checkpoints brought back memories of Lebanon's bloody 15-year civil war. The death toll during the past two days climbed to seven as soldiers shot dead a gunman in the capital.

The killing of Wissam al-Hassan, a Sunni known for his investigations into Syria and Hezbollah, in a car bomb on Friday has highlighted disenfranchisement of the country's Sunni community, a situation made more volatile by the absence of any strong figurehead who can dispel tensions.

The Internal Security Forces, where Hassan led the intelligence branch, was seen as one of the few institutions of state that remained out of the influence of Hezbollah and Damascus – making his assassination all the more incendiary.

"The last few hours have proven without a doubt that the country is going through a decisive and critical time and the level of tension in some regions is rising to unprecedented levels," the military said in a statement. It went on to urge politicians not to make inflammatory statements, saying "the fate of the nation is on the edge".

The army's warning came hours after it clashed with Sunni gunmen in the neighbourhoods surrounding Tariq al-Jadideh, which had been embroiled in fighting overnight.

A soldier on the nearby thoroughfare of Corniche al Mazraa, which was deserted as more than 10 armoured personnel carriers lined the street, said that around 50 fighters from the nearby Palestinian camp of Sabra had joined clashes against the army. The Palestinian factions yesterday denied any involvement.

"We are worried it's going to get bad," said a member of staff at the Makassed hospital on the outskirts of Tariq al-Jadideh, where two more casualties were brought in this morning, adding to the six wounded the last night. A Palestinian, who the army said had fired on a patrol, had been shot in the neck and died.

The staff were nervous, with one doctor saying a local militia leader had ordered them not to speak to journalists. The war in Lebanon is often framed as a spillover of the Syrian conflict but it is exacerbating old divides. Overnight, on the street outside the hospital, Sunni gunmen set up a checkpoint and stopped passers-by. Hospital staff said the men were on the lookout for Shias.

For the most part the clashes up and down the country have been contained in old troubles pots, particularly the northern city of Tripoli, where six of the seven casualties died, including a nine-year-old girl shot by a sniper. Sunni fighters there talk of poverty, unemployment and a sense of disenfranchisement among their community, with the government and state institutions dominated by Shia Hezbollah.

At Hassan's funeral yesterday, young, angry Sunnis in the crowd said they were there to start a "sectarian war" and condemned Hezbollah and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who is seen as being too close to Damascus. Shortly afterwards a mob broke through a military cordon near the Prime Minister's office, causing disarray in Beirut's downtown commercial district. Sunni protesters remained camped outside the office yesterday. "Our blood is boiling," said Elie, a 22-year-old medical student. "Hezbollah is a terrorist party and they want to have Syria controlling Lebanon again."

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