BEIRUT // The worst violence to hit Beirut in more than two years started innocuously - a dispute over a parking place near a mosque, just minutes before the breaking of the Ramadan fast. Yet it quickly turned a religiously mixed neighbourhood into a battle zone, as both Sunni and Shiite militants exchanged machine-gun and rocket fire, and Lebanese security forces watched helplessly from the fringes of the area. The fighting took the government and thousands of nearby tourists by surprise, with scores of armed Hizbollah fighters taking to the streets around the central neighbourhood of Bourj Abi Haydar, which sits just a kilometre from a crowded downtown entertainment district, to battle with Sunni Muslim militiamen.
By the time Lebanese intelligence officials brokered an agreement between Hizbollah's security chief, Hajj Wafiq Safa, and officials from the al Ahbash movement, four men had been killed and at least 10 wounded, and the deep-rooted political tensions between Lebanon's Sunni and Shiite communities had been laid bare. The joint statement released by Hizbollah and al Ahbash at the urging of the military described the incident as "personal" and downplayed any broader sectarian problems. The groups stressed that "this was an individual unfortunate incident" that "has no political or sectarian background". According to witnesses, the incident began Sunday evening as an altercation over a parking place between Mohammed Fawaz, a top Hizbollah military commander for Beirut, and members of a mosque linked to al Ahbash. The argument evolved into a fistfight. Tempers receded until Tuesday evening, when the same argument broke out again. Accounts differed on which side drew weapons first, but all were in agreement that Fawaz brandished a handgun after being slightly wounded in the quarrel and was then killed by a burst of machine gun fire from the Sunni side of the street. Also killed was his bodyguard and aide, Ali Jawad. Several people were wounded in the ensuing exchange of fire.
As local Hizbollah members converged on the scene, many turned off their walkie-talkies and mobile phones out of concern that Hizbollah's normally disciplined leadership would tell them to halt the hunt for Fawaz's killers, according to sources in the group. After a series of gunfights rattled the neighbourhood, with many Sunni residents, who normally oppose al Ahbash for its ties to Syria, joining in on one side and Hizbollah's secular allies in the Amal Movement joining the other, the situation threatened to spiral out of control and Beirut's streets quickly emptied of traffic and tourists as explosions rocked the capital. At least one more Hizbollah member, Mohammed al Mahdi, and a member of al Ahbash were killed in continued fighting. By about 9pm, a large force of Hizbollah's professional military wing arrived on the scene and took control of the various Shiite factions and cordoned off the area in an effort to contain the violence. They also barred hundreds of Lebanese army troops from entering the area. In at least three instances, armed young men in civilian dress were seen politely denying access to military units. An hour later, Hizbollah fighters escorted a single Lebanese army officer into the neighbourhood to help negotiate a withdrawal of the battling militants and to attempt to locate the people involved in Fawaz's shooting. Shortly after the officer arrived on the scene, Hizbollah began withdrawing its militants and army units took up positions around the area. Although Hizbollah initially demanded that al Ahbash turn over four men linked to the original shooting, statements by both sides yesterday said that any investigation or arrests would be made only by Lebanese military intelligence.
The claim that Tuesday's events were just tempers flaring over a disputed parking spot was not borne out by the reaction of much of Sunni and Shiite Beirut, as additional gunfights and occasional volleys of rocket-propelled grenades could be heard in adjacent neighbourhoods until well after midnight. The involvement of Hizbollah appeared to galvanise normally rival political factions. Members of Future Movement, the party of Saad Hariri, the prime minister, deployed to the streets unofficially in support of their rival co-religionists in al Ahbash, as did members of Jaamat Islamiya, a Sunni fundamentalist group that normally dislikes both Mr Hariri's party and al Ahbash, Lebanese security officials said. According to witnesses in the nearby Sunni stronghold of Tariq Jeddideh, mosques began broadcasting warnings to families to stay indoors, and scores of armed Sunni gunmen were seen patrolling the streets adjacent to nearby Shiite neighbourhoods until the early yesterday. In response to the fears the situation could escalate further, the ministry of defence announced yesterday that all licences for private citizens to carry weapons were suspended until further notice. The grand mufti, Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, Lebanon's top Sunni religious official, also issued a plea for calm. "We reject the phenomenon of armed rioting that reached Beirut's safe neighbourhoods. "The Lebanese are fed up from sacrificing innocent civilians in Beirut streets - the price they are paying for the rivalry of factions." firstname.lastname@example.org