SAT 30 - 5 - 2020
Date: Jul 1, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Lebanon: Leaders scramble to contain Aley fallout
Qabr Shmoun in shock after deadly shootout
Hussein Dakroub| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Top leaders Sunday scrambled to stave off the grave repercussions of clashes in Aley that killed two bodyguards belonging to a Cabinet minister in a serious incident that revived fears of strife in the Chouf district, which was ravaged by the 1975-90 Civil War.

President Michel Aoun made a series of contacts, mainly with Prime Minister Saad Hariri and heads of security agencies, to contain the security situation in the Aley area, a source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star. Aoun also called for an emergency meeting of the Higher Defense Council before noon Monday at Baabda Palace to discuss measures to prevent the sectarian-mixed Chouf district from sliding into strife.

Hariri also spoke by telephone with Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, whose tour of the Chouf Sunday sparked tensions with the Progressive Socialist Party and led to Sunday’s clashes. He also telephoned officials of the PSP, the Lebanese Democratic Party and Internal Security Forces in an attempt to defuse tensions.

Those tensions, which later developed into an armed clash, came in response to a planned visit by Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement’s leader, to Kfar Matta.

News of the visit prompted reactions from local residents and PSP supporters, who blocked roads in the area. Initial reports said PSP supporters blocked the main road in Kfar Matta, temporarily preventing Bassil’s convoy from passing through the town.

There were conflicting versions on who started the firing.

Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Saleh Gharib said gunmen opened fire on his convoy in the village of Qabr Shmoun near Aley, killing two of his bodyguards and wounding two others.

At least two PSP supporters were reported to have been injured in the clashes with Gharib’s bodyguards when they tried to make their way into Qabr Shmoun.

Gharib, who is allied with the PSP’s rival Druze party, the LDP headed by MP Talal Arslan and allied with the FPM, told local TV stations he was heading to Qabr Shmoun when his convoy came under fire. He suggested that PSP supporters were behind firing at his convoy.

Gharib told Al Jadeed TV that in light of the tensions that resulted from Bassil’s planned visit, he met with the FPM leader in Shemlan, where they agreed to postpone the visit to a later time.

He added that Bassil’s visit was planned a month ago.

“What happened in Qabr Shmoun was an armed ambush and a clear assassination attempt,” Gharib said.

But Education Minister Akram Chehayeb, who belongs the PSP headed by former MP Walid Joumblatt, dismissed Gharib’s account, accusing Gharib’s bodyguard of opening fire.

“The firing on the people came from Saleh Gharib’s convoy, and not as earlier reported,” Chehayeb said in a TV interview. In another interview with Al Jadeed TV, Chehayeb blamed what he called Bassil’s escalatory political speeches for Sunday’s clashes. He warned of “a scheme to created strife in the mountains.”

“Minister Bassil’s speech has provoked the people’s feelings,” Chehayeb said, stressing that the PSP had long advocated national accord and coexistence with Christians.

Amid rising tensions in the area, PSP supporters closed roads to prevent Bassil from touring the region.

LDP supporters, some of them armed, also blocked the main Khaldeh highway that links Beirut with the south with burning tires for several hours before the Lebanese Army and Internal Security Forces intervened. LDP supporters also blocked the international highway that links the Bekaa region with the south in the Hasbani area with burning tires, the state-run National News Agency reported.Interior Minister Raya El Hassan called for all rival parties to rein in their supporters, saying she was in contact with ISF chief Maj. Gen. Imad Othman to reopen closed roads in all areas.

Hassan said there would be heavy security deployment later Sunday night to prevent the closure of roads. “Such an incident that happened today [Sunday] will pour oil on the fire,” she told LBCI channel Sunday night.

The PSP issued a statement later Sunday, claiming that Gharib’s bodyguards opened fire on residents protesting Bassil’s visit to the region.

The statement said that when Gharib was heading to Shemlan, his bodyguards had shot at crowds in the Aley town of Abey in order to open the road that they had cut in protest. It added that the scene was repeated after Gharib left Shemlan. “When Gharib arrived to Al-Basatin [near Qabr Shmoun], his bodyguards also randomly opened fire at the protesters,” the PSP statement said. “His convoy then continued toward Qabr Shmoun, where two of Gharib’s bodyguards got out of the car and opened fire at the protesters,” it said, adding that a protester was wounded.

“Some of those [among the crowd] responded to the source of fire in self-defense, which left two of Minister Gharib’s bodyguards dead,” the statement added.

It implicitly blamed Bassil for Sunday’s incident, accusing him of responsibility for “creating tensions, provoking people and digging war graves.”

Joumblatt, a longtime critic of Bassil’s role in Cabinet, had also criticized the 2016 political settlement that led to Aoun’s election as president and brought Hariri back to the premiership. Joumblatt and other PSP officials had accused Bassil of infringing on the prime minister’s powers.

The FPM struck back at the PSP, accusing the Druze party of staging protests that brought the country back to the war era.

“After the FPM leader Minister Gebran Bassil had canceled a visit to the town of Kfar Matta as part of his tour of the Aley district in order to avoid any security incident, PSP members blocked roads, burned tires and carried out suspicious security acts over the past two days, signaling suspicious security intentions. What was feared actually happened when Minister Saleh Gharib’s convoy came under fire, which led to deaths and wounded,” the FPM’s media office said in a statement.

Declaring that Bassil called in his speeches during the tour of the Aley district for “openness, meeting together and unity among the Lebanese,” the statement said: “He [Bassil] was met with these protests that remind the Lebanese of the past war era that had resulted in sorrow, tragedies and displacement [of people], an issued that has not been closed yet.”

Bassil had been criticized by the PSP for belittling the historic 2000 Maronite-Druze reconciliation in the Chouf district achieved by Joumblatt and the late Maronite Patriarch Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir following a deep-rooted feud between Maronites and Druze during the Civil War.

Referring to this reconciliation, the FPM statement said: “We affirm our insistence on completing the march of reconciliation as we understand it: partnership and equality in the mountains and Lebanon.”

Earlier in the day, Joumblatt, who is currently out of Lebanon, wrote in a tweet clearly referring to Bassil: “The best way to respond to the challenge resulting from arrogance is to ignore it.”

Qabr Shmoun in shock after deadly shootout

Jacob Boswall| The Daily Star
QABR SHMOUN, Lebanon: In the waiting room at Qabr Shmoun Hospital, a woman wailed the name of a loved one killed in Sunday’s shooting.

The small Aley town remained in visible shock several hours after an exchange of gunfire between a convoy carrying Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Saleh al-Gharib and local supporters of the Progressive Socialist Party.

Two men died in the shootout and at least two others were injured.

Outside the hospital, groups of men stood smoking cigarettes and speaking tensely.

At the center of one group stood a victim’s father. He leaned on a parked car, smoking deeply, only pausing to receive phone calls from concerned family members.

Without warning, a young man burst through the hospital’s doors swearing loudly. He was immediately encircled by family members who attempted to console him.

Just several hundred meters down the street, bullet casings scattered the junction where locals said the altercation took place. All shops were shuttered and the vicinity was empty of women and children. Some men observed cautiously as members of the Internal Security Forces arrived to begin investigations into the incident.

The tragic events started as a peaceful attempt to prevent a convoy carrying Free Patriotic Leader Gebran Bassil from passing through Qabr Shmoun, local eyewitnesses said.

“The convoy arrived and people were already protesting and burning tires,” A.M., a member of the Progressive Socialist Party’s youth wing, told The Daily Star.

A.M., who asked that his name be withheld, lives in the nearby village of Baysour but was visiting Qabr Shmoun for an event in the town.

The protesters believed that the arriving convoy belonged to Bassil, A.M. said, when in fact it belonged to Gharib - a member of the Lebanese Democratic Party headed by Druze leader Talal Arslan. As soon as Gharib’s bodyguards saw the blocked road, they began firing on the crowd, multiple eyewitnesses said.

“A group of [the bodyguards] got out and opened fire on people. ... [The protesters] were all civilians and youth,” A.M. said. Gharib disputed this account and claimed his convoy was fired on first in what he said was an assassination attempt.

Another eyewitness showed The Daily Star photos of the smashed rear windscreen of his car, which he alleged had been caused by the bodyguards’ initial fire. Nearby several parked cars were peppered with bullet holes. A large black patch could be seen on the asphalt where PSP supporters burned tires and other objects in order to block the street. Black marks had also made their way up a residential house adjacent to the road, whose windows had also been smashed in the gunfire.

Although A.M. insisted the PSP supporters were unarmed, he admitted that two of their members had concealed weapons with which they returned fire, injuring four bodyguards. “They shot at the convoy as a reaction to what they did,” he said.

A.M. added that if the protesters had known the convoy belonged to Gharib, they would have allowed it to pass. “There is a huge political crisis between [the PSP and the LDP]. But not to the extent that this would happen. We belong to the same sect. ... This is a red line - this is forbidden.”

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