Lebanese army tries to force gunmen from streets

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese soldiers in armored vehicles fanned out across the country on Monday to break down civilian roadblocks and chase gunmen off the streets as tempers flared over the killing of a top intelligence official who was a powerful opponent of Syrian involvement in Lebanon.

Sectarian clashes killed at least six people. A seventh person was killed after soldiers returned fire following an attack on their patrol.

The killing of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan in a Beirut car bomb on Friday sparked days of tensions, accusations and violence in Lebanon between supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his opponents. Al-Hassan was solidly in the latter group, and his supporters, many of them Sunni Muslims, blamed Damascus for the killing.

Many also called for the resignation of the Hezbollah-dominated government, saying it is too cozy with the Syrian regime.

The army’s security operation Monday sought to sweep from the streets gunmen who many here fear could end up dragging the country into the kind of sectarian clashes that have plagued Lebanon for decades.

“The nation is passing through a crucial and critical period and tension has risen in some areas to unprecedented levels,” the army said in a statement. It urged politicians to be careful not to incite violence “because the fate of the nation is on the edge.”

“Security is a red line,” the statement said, adding that strict measures are being taken to “prevent Lebanon from being an arena for settling regional problems.”

Cracks of gunfire rang out in Beirut as soldiers took up positions on major thoroughfares and dismantled roadblocks of burning tires erected by angry youth. The state news agency reported sporadic gunfire in parts of Beirut and around the northern city of Tripoli.

Tripoli saw clashes between two neighborhoods that support opposite sides in Syria’s conflict and have a decades-long history of violence. Five people were killed in the fighting between the Sunni neighborhood of Bab Tabbaneh, which supports Syria’s rebels, and the adjacent Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen, which supports Assad.

Security officials said one man was killed in the Wadi Zayneh area south of Beirut. The state news agency said a Palestinian man was killed in Beirut’s Qusqus neighborhood when army troops returned fired on their patrol. More than two dozen people were wounded nationwide.

Lebanon and Syria share similar sectarian divides that have fed tensions in both countries. Most of Lebanon’s Sunnis have backed Syria’s mainly Sunni rebels, while Lebanese Shiites tend to back Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite sect — an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Tripoli residents said scores of soldiers fanned out across the city in an attempt to restore calm. The military also set up checkpoints, searched cars and checked people’s identity cards.

Al-Hassan, the assassinated intelligence official, was a Sunni who challenged Syria and its powerful Lebanese ally, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

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