Lebanese politicians call for calm after minister’s two bodyguards are killed in shoot-out

Gun battle between rival Druze parties is worst violence in years for community

Saleh al-Gharib, the state minister for refugee affairs, whose two bodyguards were killed yesterday in what he termed an attempted assassination, sits with Talal Arslan, a Druze politician, during a news conference, in Khaldeh, near Beirut, Lebanon July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Aziz Taher
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Lebanese politicians called for calm on Monday after a minister’s two bodyguards were killed in a rare shoot-out, bringing back memories of the country's civil war that ended three decades ago.

Four other men were injured in the gunfire that broke out around the convoy of Minister of the Displaced, Saleh Al Gharib.

Mr Al Gharib had just arrived in the village of Qabr Shmoun, just north of the Chouf region, the historical heartland of the Druze community, on Sunday afternoon.

What caused the violence is unclear. Supporters of Mr Al Gharib and his Lebanese Democratic Party say men affiliated to the rival Progressive Socialist Party opened fire on his convoy.

Nassib Al Jawhari, vice president of the LDP, told The National that it was a trap and a clear assassination attempt.

But the rival supporters say a dozen of Mr Al Gharib’s bodyguards started shooting at the crowd that was blocking the road, and that men shot back in self-defence.

The two parties have competed for centuries to represent the Druze community, but tension reached a new high in the past year. In May 2018, a man was killed during armed clashes.

Most residents of Qabr Shmoun recounted the version of events given by the socialist party, which is widely supported in the village.

“The convoy tried to force its way through demonstrators and men started shooting at the crowd," said the owner of a grocery shop just a few metres from where the shooting took place.

He showed a 30-second video of the incident that was circulated on social media, in which several men with their faces covered in black cloth shoot in the street as people cower. The men then flee in black SUVs.

“These men are Saleh Al Gharib’s bodyguards. Why do they have their faces covered in the first place?” he said.

An employee of the pharmacy opposite was less hasty to blame the LDP.

“I witnessed the shooting but it was such a mess that I couldn’t say who started it,” he said.

On Monday afternoon, a few dozen soldiers had set up a roadblock over a short section of the street where the incident took place.

Shops were open and busy. Locals said life had gone back to normal and that they did not expect a resurgence of violence.

But angry LDP supporters blocked a road with burning tyres 20 kilomeres north-east of Qabr Shmoun, near Baalchmay, for short periods on Monday morning and evening.

After the incident on Sunday, Prime Minister Saad Hariri contacted leaders of both parties, Lebanese intelligence, and the police to ask them to restore calm.

The Higher Defence Council said after an emergency meeting on Monday morning that an investigation into the incident would begin as soon as possible and all suspects would be arrested.

In a veiled threat, LDP leader Talal Arslane said on Monday afternoon that “the state is welcome to impose itself but if it doesn’t, we know how to".

Education Minister Akram Chehayeb, who is a member of the PSP, said the  angry crowd was demonstrating in Qabr Shmoun on Sunday because of the presence of Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil in the region, not Mr Al Gharib.

Mr Chehayeb said Mr Bassil’s recent speeches were provocative, referring to the foreign minister's mention of fighting between the Druze and the Christians, including massacres by both sides, during the Lebanese civil war that ended in 1990.

Mr Bassil is the leader of the predominantly Christian Free Patriotic Movement party.

Christians and Druze have been fighting since the mid 19th century but tension eased after they signed a reconciliation agreement in 2001.

The grocery shop owner in Qabr Shmoun agreed with Mr Chehayeb.

“He brought up feelings that have been dead," he said. "He shouldn’t be doing that just because he hopes to be president one day."

He said the crowd refused to let Mr Al Gharib’s convoy pass thinking that Mr Bassil was with him.

But he had decided at the last minute to avoid the town because of the demonstrations.

Karim Bitar, professor of international relations at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, said speeches by PSP leader Walid Jumblatt and Mr Bassil were to blame for the bloodshed.

“Old wounds have not healed and reckless speeches have increased tensions, both from Mr Bassil and from Mr Jumblatt, who considers that the Chouf region is his,” Prof Bitar said.

He said that historically, the main reason for violence between the Druze and the Christians is foreign meddling, a point that is still valid today.

“In the 19th century, the Druze were supported by Great Britain and the Christians by the French," Prof Bitar said.

"Today, allies of the Syrian regime have not forgiven Walid Jumblatt’s attitude towards Bashar Al Assad."

Mr Jumblatt worked closely with Mr Al Assad, the Syrian President, and his father Hafez for 30 years before turning against him in the early 2000s.

The LDP proudly boasts of its close relationship to Mr Al Assad.

Mr Arslane’s home on the seashore south of Beirut has several pictures of himself with Bashar Al Assad and his deceased brother Bassel, and former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.