BEIRUT — The killings of two pro-government Sunni Muslims has raised tensions across Lebanon. Rival political leaders have called for calm amidst fear that the killings could spark civil strife.
The Lebanese police found the bodies Thursday of a pro-government supporter and a 12-year-old boy abducted earlier this week. The abduction was believed to be in retaliation for the killing earlier this year of a Shia Muslim opposition activist.
The bodies of 25-year-old Ziad Qabalan and 12-year-old Ziad Ghandour were found 40km south of Beirut in a field north of the port city of Sidon. Ghandour’s father and Qabalan are members of the Progressive Socialist party of pro-government Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.
The two had been kidnapped Monday, inflaming the already high sectarian tensions in this small country of four million people with 18 religions. Tensions have been running particularly high between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
Lebanese media reported that the two were kidnapped by members of the Shia Shamas clan who had vowed to avenge the killing of a member in clashes at the Beirut university campus in January. The clan, however, condemned the kidnapping in a statement Wednesday, and distanced itself from the abduction.
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said the killing was carried out after “conspirators and outside powers” failed to drive his country into internal confrontation.
“The recent killing is the same as what happened in 1975,” Lahoud told IPS at the presidential palace in Beirut. “They want civil war here, but we won’t allow it.”
The 1975 incident the President referred to occurred Apr. 13 of that year when unidentified gunmen fired on a church in the Christian east Beirut suburb Ain el- Rummaneh, killing four people, including two Maronite Phalangists. The Phalange is a large Christian militia.
Hours later, Phalangists killed 27 Palestinian civilians in a bus in the same suburb.
That was the trigger for the infamous 15-year Lebanese civil war, which left an estimated 100,000 dead, as many seriously injured, and nearly a million displaced from their homes.
When asked who “they” were who want a Lebanese civil war, Lahoud told IPS, “It’s always foreign interventions trying to create strife in Lebanon, and it’s always the Lebanese who suffer. But I’m proud that the leaders of all groups here are united in urging calm and condemning the killing.”
Lahoud’s office issued a statement urging Lebanese people to be alert to conspiracies, and to stop anyone trying to play dirty. Past experience has shown that all confrontations followed provoking incidents, the statement said.
Lahoud requested that firm security measures be taken to prevent “any repercussions of this deplorable incident.” As a result, all universities in Beirut were closed Friday, and the Lebanese army deployed in mixed neighbourhoods. Extra security checkpoints were set up throughout the city.
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora who described the incident as a terrorist act, also appealed for calm. The powerful Shia group Hezbollah led by Hassan Nasrallah also condemned the killings.
Many Lebanese people sounded united in wanting the situation to be defused in order to avoid any escalation.
“With Nasrallah and Jumblatt calling for calm, this has defused the tension a good deal,” Hamzah Tahan, a taxi driver in Beirut told IPS. “But before they called for calm, we were all afraid.”
Tahan said he believed these were revenge killings, but “carried out by simple thieves.”
Many blame the current U.S.-backed government of Siniora and his allies like Saad Harriri and Walid Jumblatt for creating a difficult situation.
“Outside forces helped create the current political tensions which may have led to these killings,” 32-year-old English language teacher Raed el-Amine told IPS. “The pro-government groups are more responsible for this because they’ve focused more on disunity by playing the sectarian game.”
Sporadic violence between the mainly Sunni, Druze and Christian ruling coalition and the mainly Shia and Christian opposition has killed at least eight people since the opposition launched a peaceful street campaign last year to topple the government. Each incident has raised the tensions higher, as did the events that had led to Lebanon’s civil war.