Fueled by Syrian war, hostilities surge in Lebanon

March 18, 2014 - 5:04 PM
Mideast Lebanon Syria

A Sunni protestor carries tires as a fire set by Sunni protesters burns on a major roadway between Beirut and the capital's southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, to show support for residents of the Sunni town of Arsal, in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, March 18, 2014. Gunmen from Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group and local Shiite Muslim residents tightened their blockade of a Sunni town of Arsal near the Syrian border Tuesday, sparking concerns that thousands of Syrian refugees stranded in the area could be cut off from humanitarian aid. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT (AP) — Sunni Muslim demonstrators used burning tires to close key roads across Lebanon Tuesday to protest a blockade of their brethren by Shiite gunmen, officials said, as the country struggles to keep a lid on simmering sectarian tensions enflamed by the civil war in neighboring Syria.

In one of the most ominous signs, an AP reporter saw protesters marching among cars stopped at a Beirut roadblock and warning drivers with Shiite emblems on their vehicles that Sunnis would not be cowed by the powerful Shiite militant Hezbollah group. There was no violence, and all of the cars eventually moved on unscathed.

Lebanon, which is still haunted by its own 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, has been deeply polarized by the current conflict in Syria. Lebanese Sunnis largely support the predominantly Sunni opposition in Syria, while Shiites have backed President Bashar Assad's government.

That dynamic has sent sectarian hatreds soaring in Lebanon, particularly since the country's most powerful political and military force, Hezbollah, dispatched its fighters last year to Syria to bolster Assad's forces. Many Sunnis also resent Hezbollah's unmatched political and military position in Lebanon.

Against that backdrop, hundreds of angry young Sunni protesters forced roads to close Tuesday across the country to protest a dayslong Hezbollah blockade on the predominantly Sunni town of Arsal near the Syrian border.

The demonstrators blocked the highway linking Beirut with predominantly Shiite south Lebanon, the highway running from the Lebanese capital to the Syrian capital, the main road leading to north Lebanon, as well the main route from town of Saadnayel in the eastern Bekaa Valley to the Baalbek region, a Hezbollah stronghold, according to security officials.

In Beirut, an AP reporter saw around 200 protesters blocking a major roadway between the city center and the predominantly Shiite southern suburbs.

In the Kaskas district of the capital, meanwhile, three protesters were wounded after the army opened fire to try to disperse the demonstrators, security officials said on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

That Arsal is emerging as a sort of rallying cry for many Lebanese Sunnis is not a complete surprise. The town has long been a friction point, serving as a haven for Syrian rebels and refugees, as well as a key transit point for weapons and fighters in the conflict next door.

Over the weekend, Hezbollah gunmen and local Shiites closed off Arsal's only road to the rest of Lebanon by erecting a sandbagged checkpoint. The move came after residents of nearby Shiite areas blamed Arsal for rocket fire in recent days on their villages and a car bombing that killed three people.

But the blockade also appears to be aimed at containing a fresh influx of Syrian rebels and refugees into Arsal since Sunday, when President Bashar Assad's troops and his Hezbollah allies captured the opposition stronghold of Yabroud just across the border.

Shiite gunmen made clear their intentions to keep Arsal sealed off Tuesday by opening fire at vehicles that tried to drive up toward the checkpoint from the town, deputy mayor Ahmad Fliti said. The shooting heightened despair within Arsal, now home to 40,000 Lebanese and 52,000 Syrian refugees for whom the road is a vital lifeline.

Another 200 Syrian families arrived in Arsal over the past few days, fleeing fighting as Syrian troops seized Yabroud, said Lisa Abu Khaled of the U.N.'s refugee agency.

"Everybody needs help. They need blankets and food. But we are currently facing a ticking bomb of contagious illnesses, a ticking bomb of hunger and a ticking bomb of people," said Fliti.

Lebanese aid organizations distributed a three-day emergency food supply to the neediest refugees on Monday, the U.N.'s Abu Khaled said. But she stressed that tens of thousands more were left to rely on dwindling stocks within the town.

"Assistance will definitely be hindered without the reopening of the road. What is available in Arsal won't be enough," she said.

Across the border in Yabroud, the Syrian government took a small group of journalists, including an AP reporter, on a tour of the recently captured town.

Damage from the fighting was evident everywhere. Electricity wires were strewn across the road into town, windows were blown out and shop doors destroyed.

A field commander told reporters that some rebels fled across the border to Arsal, while others retreated to the Syrian towns of Rankous, Fallittah and Ras al-Ein. The commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the army was now focusing on Ras al-Ein, and the heavy thud of government shelling there reverberated during the tour of Yabroud.

In Damascus, Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi estimated the cost of the Syrian war, now in its fourth year, had amounted to $30.1 billion, or 4.7 trillion Syrian pounds. In an interview to the pro-government al-Baath newspaper, al-Halqi gave no further details on how the amount was calculated.

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Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Diaa Hadid and Hussein Malla in Beirut contributed to this report.