SAT 30 - 5 - 2020
Date: Jul 5, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Lebanon: De-escalation efforts bear fruit; families to bury dead
Hussein Dakroub| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Mediation attempts to de-escalate tensions arising from the deadly Aley clashes appeared to be bearing fruit Thursday as the families of the two men killed in the shooting have agreed to bury them, dropping their demand that the culprits be arrested first.

General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim, who has been tasked with defusing tensions between the country’s two main Druze parties, the Progressive Socialist Party and the rival Lebanese Democratic Party, said after a new round of talks with LDP leader MP Talal Arslan that “things are heading in the right direction” to find a solution to the crisis that had threatened to plunge the sectarian-mixed Chouf district into new strife.

Thursday witnessed a flurry of activity involving Ibrahim, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Arslan and Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Saleh Gharib, who is allied with the LDP, aiming to reduce inter-Druze tensions stemming from Sunday’s shooting incident in the Aley town of Qabr Shmoun between a convoy carrying Gharib and PSP supporters that left two of Gharib’s bodyguards dead and two others wounded.

The tensions arose over a trip Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, had planned to Aley’s Kfar Matta. PSP protesters had gathered in nearby Qabr Shmoun to impede Bassil’s travel. The LDP and the PSP have traded accusations over who started shooting first.

“The de-escalation efforts are paying off and will subsequently set the stage for the resumption of Cabinet sessions next week,” a political source familiar with the case told The Daily Star.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri postponed a Cabinet session Tuesday in order to avert a split among ministers over the handling of the Aley clashes, including a request by the LDP and its ally, the FPM, to refer the case to the Judicial Council.

Hariri, who is also involved in the ongoing mediation attempts, said the postponement of the Cabinet session was part of efforts to de-escalate tensions. Earlier in the day, the LDP said in a statement that Arslan had agreed with the families of the two slain men to set dates for their burial, signaling a cooling of tensions over the politically charged affair.

A funeral procession for Rami Salman will be held in his hometown of Ramlieh Friday at 2 p.m., with that of the second victim, Samer Abi Farraj, to be held Saturday at 1 p.m. in Baalshmey, the statement said.

It said the decision came in conformity with “the wishes of the Druze Spiritual Council and senior Druze sheikhs.”

Arslan and the families of the deceased, who belonged to the LDP, had previously refused to set a date for burial until all those responsible had been arrested. So far, five men have been arrested and handed over to the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch for investigation.

The LDP statement said, however, that deciding the funeral date did not mean it had given up on demands for a full investigation into the incident and that the party was still insisting on the “handover of all those wanted and involved in the armed ambush.”

Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab said Wednesday that there were still a number of suspects in the clash, without providing specifics.

Arslan insisted that the Aley episode be referred to the Judicial Council, the country’s highest judicial court - a divisive issue within the Cabinet.

Berri, the Future Movement, the PSP and the Lebanese Forces are reported to be opposed to referring the case to the Judicial Council, arguing that the case can be handled by the regular judiciary. “We insist on referring the case to the Judicial Council. Why is there panic over referring the case to the Judicial Council?” Arslan told MTV Thursday night.

Despite political differences with Berri, who is allied with Arslan’s rival, PSP leader Walid Joumblatt, Arslan appealed to both the speaker and Hariri saying: “The blood of the people [two victims] is your responsibility.” He said both Berri and Hariri were keen on the safety of the Druze community.

Arslan also issued a string of tweets warning against “handing over innocent people to cover up those responsible,” nevertheless reiterating his faith in Ibrahim. Speaking to reporters after meeting Ibrahim at his Khaldeh residence, Arslan said: “Things are on the right track, on which Maj. Gen. Ibrahim is working with all transparency and credibility. Maj. Gen. Ibrahim is working for the security and safety of the mountains and he does employ politics in this issue.”

Gharib, who attended Arslan’s meeting with Ibrahim, later left to brief Berri on the “truth” of the Aley clashes.

“Speaker Berri is aware of details of the incident and he fully knows the truth. We thank him for his efforts to ward off strife in the mountain,” Gharib said after the meeting with Berri at the speaker’s Ain al-Tineh residence, declining to provide further details of the discussion.

Gharib said that despite setting dates for the burial of the two slain men, the LDP insisted on referring the case to the Judicial Council.

Berri had brought Hariri and Joumblatt together in an ice-breaking meeting at his Ain al-Tineh residence Wednesday night following tensions between the two leaders. The three leaders were reported to have agreed on steps to defuse tensions in the predominantly Druze mountain area south of Beirut.

As part of his mediation efforts, Ibrahim had met with Joumblatt Wednesday, who said following the meeting that he was open to “all solutions” that would ease tensions in Aley and the Chouf.

Meanwhile, ministerial sources denied Druze claims that Monday’s meeting of the Higher Defense Council at Baabda Palace to contain the repercussions of the Aley clashes was unconstitutional because it did not have a Druze representative. In a statement issued after its meeting Wednesday attended by Joumblatt and members of the PSP’s parliamentary bloc, the Druze Spiritual Council said: “The council stressed that the absence of the Druze sect from the Higher Defense Council’s meeting makes this [Higher Defense] Council lose its” constitutionality.

The ministerial sources said the Army chief of staff is not a member of the Higher Defense Council which, according to a 1982 legislative decree, is headed by the president and includes the prime minister as deputy chairman, and the defense, foreign affairs, finance, interior and economy ministers as members.

Referring to President Michel Aoun, who chaired the council’s meeting and who invited the justice minister and the minister of state for presidency affairs and heads of security agencies to attend, the sources said the president, under Clause 2 of the decree, had the right to invite whomever he wished for the meeting. The sources called on those who criticized the Higher Defense Council’s latest meeting to “stop misleading the public and playing on sectarian and confessional sentiments.”

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