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Hezbollah sends men onto streets

on 11/01/2019

For residents of Beirut, the scene is all too familiar: panicked parents rushing to collect their children from school as bands of men gather in the streets and army tanks begin to roll in.

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In parts of western Beirut, residents woke up on Tuesday to find dozens of unarmed men outside in an apparent show of force after a UN prosecutor filed indictments over the 2005 murder of former premier Rafiq Hariri.

“I was having my coffee this morning when I heard on television that men were gathering on the airport road and I panicked,” said 48-year-old Lena al-Fata.

“I told my daughter not to attend classes today and called my son, who had gone to his office near the airport,” said the mother-of-two.

“When he didn’t pick up, I imagined the worst,” she told AFP. “Our nerves are totally frayed. We cannot take this anymore.”

Lebanon has been headed for a crisis since last summer, when the powerful Hezbollah first announced it expected to face an indictment by the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon in connection with Hariri’s assassination.

The Shiite militant movement last week forced the collapse of the Western-backed government of Saad Hariri, son of the slain leader, in a long-running dispute over the tribunal.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has warned his party would not stand idle should the court implicate any of its members.

Tuesday’s gathering, which came the morning after UN prosecutor Daniel Bellemare filed his charges, may be a sign of “preparations to mobilise in relation to the indictments,” a security official told AFP.

“When questioned as to what they were doing there, the men quipped that they were simply going on a trip,” he added, requesting anonymity.

Several schools in western Beirut shut their doors early on Tuesday morning when the men began to appear on the streets, where they remained for close to an hour before disbanding.

By midday, army troops had spread across the capital in a bid to “reassure citizens,” a military spokesman said.

But many remain far from reassured, even ducking indoors when approached by journalists.

“Every mother was asking her neighbour whether her children came home safe and sound,” said one Beiruti woman, who declined to give her name.

“We were terrified.”

Musbah Eido, a local official in the neighbourhood of Bashoura, said the gatherings had left people “nervous and uneasy”.

“It was enough to leave everyone shaken for the rest of the day,” he told AFP.

A low-ranking official with the Shiite Amal Movement, Hezbollah’s ally, told AFP he had sent several young partisans out into the streets on Tuesday morning to “test the waters” as well as “send a message” to his rivals.

“In all honesty, we do not know exactly what the goal was. We were told to hit the streets, so we did,” he said, requesting his name be concealed.

“Then we were told to go home, so we did.”

Experts have predicted a protracted political crisis and warn tensions could escalate into violence at any moment in Lebanon, a tiny country that has been gripped for decades by political unrest and all-out war.

“For the time being, daily life in Lebanon remains surprisingly normal,” Paul Salem, head of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre, wrote in an article published on Tuesday.

But, Salem argues, “a turn toward street protests or a more ominous possibility of Hezbollah using its might to settle matters in its favour cannot be ruled out.”


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