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Tension escalates in Lebanon amid international calls for restraint

Protesters blocked roads in Lebanon’s northern Akkar region for a third day on Tuesday, a security official said, amid mounting tension over the conflict in neighboring Syria.Street battles between pro- and anti-Syrian groups in Beirut (Reuters)Street battles between pro- and anti-Syrian groups in Beirut (Reuters)
 
“Some of the roads have been blocked in Halba and Sheikh Ayash,” the official, who requested anonymity, told AFP.
 
The road closures were linked to the weekend killing of two clerics at an army checkpoint in Akkar, a mainly Sunni region whose inhabitants are hostile to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
 
Two rockets were fired in the Lebanese city of Tripoli late Monday, one landing in the predominantly Alawite neighborhood of Hai al-Amrikan and the other between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tebbaneh, which is mainly Sunni, Al Arabiya reported citing a security official. There were no reports of casualties. 
 
Tension in the north and the clashes in the capital Beirut were reflected on several others Lebanese regions, where the same scenario of blocking roads with burning tires was repeated. Meanwhile, political and security efforts were underway to halt the escalating tensions witnessed by the country within the past few days.
 
Street battles
Street battles between pro- and anti-Syrian groups in Beirut killed two people on Monday, sparking concerns of a wider conflict in Lebanon.
 
The violence erupted hours after reports emerged that troops had shot dead Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Wahid, a prominent anti-Syrian regime Sunni cleric, when his convoy failed to stop at a checkpoint in north Lebanon on Sunday. Another cleric in the car was also killed. 
 
Protesters blocked roads and burned tires in the northern region of Akkar following the killing of the clerics, and by evening the unrest had spread to the capital.
 
“During the night, groups of young men cut off the road in the Tareek al-Jdideh district and street battles followed,” the security official said, requesting anonymity.
 
“Two people were killed and 18 were wounded,” he said, adding machineguns had been fired and that the fighting had raged until about 3:00 am (2400 GMT).
 
An office housing a small pro-Syrian party in Tareek al-Jdideh, a mainly Sunni Muslim neighborhood of west Beirut, was torched by partisans of ex-premier Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and the facade of the building was riddled with bullets.
 
Several motorcycles and cars parked on the street below were burned.
 
Calm had been restored by daylight following appeals from Prime Minister Najib Mikati and other politicians.
 
Washington earlier Monday expressed concern over the killings and urged restraint, AFP reported.
 
“We welcome the commitment of the Lebanese government and the Lebanese Armed Forces to conduct a swift and transparent investigation of the shooting incident,” U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said.
 
“And we call on all parties to exercise restraint and respect for Lebanon’s security and stability,” he said.
 
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon also called “on all parties to make every effort to restore calm.”
 
The U.N. head said Derek Plumbly, Special Coordinator for Lebanon, was “engaged on the ground, encouraging all concerned to work for sustained calm and stability in the country.”
 
He also stressed the “need for Lebanon’s continuing stability,” and encouraged “all Lebanese parties to strengthen their efforts to date to overcome any emerging challenges on the ground.”
 
In Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was “deeply concerned at the outbreaks of violence in Tripoli and Beirut.”
 
“These events must be duly investigated and followed by Lebanon’s law enforcement authorities,” she said.
 
Tension high
Tension was palpable in Beirut, where residents fear a repeat of sectarian clashes like those that left some 100 people dead in 2008 and brought the country close to civil war.
 
“I’ve had enough... of war,” said Amal Khattab, a 40-year-old teacher and mother of two who lives in Tareek el-Jdideh.
 
“My children were terrified last night,” she added, crying. “I can’t spend another minute in this country.”
 
Wahid’s funeral was held on Monday in his hometown of al-Bireh, in the northern Akkar region, where many businesses and shops were closed after Sunni religious leaders called for three days of mourning.
 
“We want a fair trial, and we want the killers of Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Wahid to be executed,” Future Movement MP Khaled al-Daher said at the funeral.
 
A judicial official said military police were questioning 21 soldiers, including three officers, in relation to the death of the two clerics.
 
Their killing followed a week of intermittent clashes between Sunnis hostile to the Syrian regime and Alawites who support it which left 10 people dead in the northern port city of Tripoli.
 
The violence has highlighted a deep split between Lebanon’s political parties, where the opposition backs those leading the uprising against Assad while a ruling coalition led by Shiite militant group Hezbollah supports the Damascus regime.
 
The Sunni-led opposition has accused Assad of seeking to sow chaos in Lebanon in order to relieve the pressure on his embattled regime.
 
Reflecting mounting fears of an escalation, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates urged their citizens to avoid travel to Lebanon.
 
Since the outbreak of the revolt in Syria in March of last year, thousands of Syrians fleeing the unrest in their country as well as activists have sought refuge in northern Lebanon.
 
Syria flooded Lebanon with troops early in its 1975-1991 civil war and dominated its smaller neighbor for over a decade afterwards. It retains significant influence over Lebanon’s intelligence apparatus and military, according to Reuters.
 
Syria long held sway in Lebanese politics until it was forced to withdraw its troops in 2005 following the assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.
 
It has denied accusations it was involved in his killing.

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