Lebanon army opens road near Syria border after night of tension

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s army deployed in a tense town near the Syrian border early Wednesday, reopening the main road after its closure sparked sectarian tension across the country.

Mostly-Sunni Arsal had been sealed off by residents from the mainly-Shiite neighboring town of Labweh, where one person was killed last week by rocket fire.

The closure of the main road out of Arsal prompted fury among Sunnis in other parts of Lebanon, and many took to streets across the country on Tuesday night to burn tires in protest.

One person was shot dead at one of the demonstrations in the capital Beirut, prompting some lawmakers to call for an investigation on Wednesday.

In the wake of the tensions, President Michel Sleiman met Wednesday with Prime Minister Tammam Salam and top security officials, the official National News Agency (NNA) reported.

Residents of Labweh blame residents of Arsal for rocket fire on their town, although it was reported to have originated across the border in Syria.

Tensions between residents of the two towns have increased since the fall of the Syrian rebel bastion Yabrud, just across the frontier, on Sunday.

Yabrud’s capture prompted an exodus of Syrian civilians as well as rebel fighters, with many taking refuge in or around Arsal, where residents are sympathetic towards the Syrian uprising.

Angry Sunnis during the night blocked roads in Beirut, along the coast and in the Beqaa valley to protest what they called a “siege” of Arsal by Labweh residents.

The army arrived early Wednesday and reopened the road, Arsal municipal council member Bakr Houjairi told AFP.

“So far the situation is very calm, we will see what will happen later, but we are happy to see the army here and opening the road up,” he said.

The war in neighboring Syria has exacerbated existing sectarian tensions in Lebanon, particularly between Sunni and Shiite residents.

Many Sunni Lebanese back the Sunni-dominated Syrian uprising, while Shiites support Lebanon’s powerful Shiite Hezbollah movement, which is allied with Syria’s regime and fighting alongside it.

Residents of Labweh welcomed the deployment of the army, according to Hezbollah MP Hussein al-Hajj Hassan, who told parliament that they “have one demand, and that is for the army to deploy in Arsal.”

“This is a patriotic demand, because there should be no obstacles to keeping the peace,” Hassan added.

The border region has become particularly fragile, with Arsal hosting some 51,000 civilian refugees and facing accusations that it allows rebel fighters to establish bases in the area around it.

The northern city of Tripoli has also seen frequent battles pitting Alawite supporters of Assad against Sunni backers of Syria’s rebels.

On Wednesday, a man died of gunshot wounds, seven days into clashes in Tripoli, taking the total death toll from the latest round of fighting to 13, according to a security source.

Hundreds of people have died in Syria-related violence in Lebanon ever since the anti-Assad revolt broke out three years ago.

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