Tension rises between political rivals in Lebanon

Thousands of troops are deployed in the country's Christian heartland to prevent an outbreak of violence.

The predominately Christian city of Zgharta remained tense on Sunday after the murder of two men from a nearby village associated with the powerful Franjeih family by a political rival. ///Special Forces COmmandos from the Lebanese Army keep rivals away from Franjieh supporters during the voting to prevent bloodshed.
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ZGHARTA, LEBANON // Lebanon's final round of municipal elections was mostly complete yesterday amid tensions between two rival parties after the killing of two brothers aligned with a major Christian party. Voting in the village of Bazoun was postponed after all the candidates withdrew to protest against the killing of Tony and Nayef Saleh, allegedly at the hands of a top official of their chief political rival, according to witnesses.

The brothers, supporters of Sleiman Franjieh's Marada Party, were killed after an altercation with Hanna al Barsaoui on Friday. Mr Barsaoui, who remained at large yesterday, is thought to be an official with the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian party with a long standing, and often bloody, rivalry with Mr Franjieh's organisation. Thousands of security forces descended on the mountain villages in north Lebanon's mountainous Christian heartland to prevent violence between Mr Franjieh's supporters and their rivals in both the Lebanese Forces and their allies in several other pro-government Christian parties.

As an old ally of Syria, Mr Franjieh has long been hated by many of Lebanon's anti-Syrian Christian parties, which support the "March 14" political alliance headed by Saad Hariri, the prime minister. The bitterness dates back to a series of political murders conducted between Christian factions during the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 to 1991, when Mr Franjieh went against fellow Christians by aligning himself with Syria. The top official in the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, has repeatedly been accused of killing members of Mr Franjieh's immediate family during this period, a charge Mr Geagea denies.

Despite fears of widespread violence breaking out among Lebanon's occasionally violent fractious Christian community, polling in major areas such as Batroun, Zgharta and Bcharre appeared to have been conducted peacefully. In a press conference on Saturday, Mr Franjieh apologised to his supporters for having preached non-violence in the past and seemingly endorsed violent retribution for the murder of the Saleh brothers in the village of Dahr Al Ain on Friday.

He also placed blame for the incident, and any repercussions, on Mr Geagea and his ally, Mr Hariri. "The most important part of the Dahr Al Ain incident is that only one party was armed," Mr Franjieh said during the press conference. "The judiciary will decide who is responsible. I would like to remind every person who supports this person, starting with Hariri all the way to all statesmen, that they are backing a criminal with no political project," Mr Franjieh added.

Residents of Dahr Al Ain said that the incident occurred after the Saleh brothers arrived at a butcher shop owned by Mr Barsaoui to confront him following an earlier altercation involving Mr Barsaoui's sons. According to witnesses, the Saleh brothers, who lost in a fist-fight with several youth from the area, had arrived at the butcher shop to take revenge when they were shot. Mr Franjieh's supporters denied that the killings were in self-defence.

Dahr Al Ain was nearly deserted yesterday as the residents of the village appeared to have fled in anticipation of revenge attacks by Mr Franjieh's supporters. Yesterday marked the second weekend when elections were supported by a massive security presence to prevent violence. Ziad Baroud, the interior minister, who on Saturday ordered security forces to detain anyone seen carrying a weapon on election day, denied that the situation was out of control, or that he had militarised the political process.

The north is "a place where the state has taken the suitable measures," Mr Baroud said. "It is unacceptable that any security incident be taken lightly." Voting among Lebanon's 3.33 million electorate began on May 2 in the Mount Lebanon area overlooking the capital, with voters casting their ballots every Sunday over the month, except on May 16. In the north, 767,000 people were eligible to vote to elect 238 town councils and 646 mukhtars, or mayors, with another 112 councils in the region having already been elected to office based on family and clan affiliations.

In the Sunni areas, notably Tripoli, Mr Hariri's list of candidates was easily expected to secure the most votes. In Christian areas such as Zgharta, Koura and Batroun, a close contest was predicted, between the Christian MP Michel Aoun - an ally of Hizbollah - and Mr Geagea. The last local elections were in 2004. mprothero@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse