Lebanon’s sectarian fabric on Tuesday looked increasingly stretched as thousands of Shia demonstrators attended the funeral of the first fatality in their continuing protests to topple Fouad Siniora, the country’s Sunni prime minister.
The army’s commander warned that the military may not be able to control the situation for much longer after soldiers intervened for a second night in clashes between Shia demonstrators and Sunni government supporters.
“The absence of political solutions along with a recurrence of security incidents, particularly those with sectarian overtones, drains the army’s capabilities and weakens neutrality,” General Michel Suleiman said, according to a local news agency.
The army includes conscripts and officers from all backgrounds, with Lebanon’s main groups – Shia, Sunni and Maronite Christians – having the largest representation. During the 1975-1991 civil war, the military split along sectarian lines.
Pro-Syrian Shia Hizbollah and Amal movements turned the funeral of the demonstrator, who was killed in clashes on Sunday night, into another massive protest against the western-backed government.
Mourners called for the death of Mr Siniora and blamed a “government militia” for the killing. They emphasised the increasingly sectarian nature of the crisis, shouting: “The blood of the Shia is boiling.”
The Future movement, which backs the government, pointed out in a statement, however, that Hizbollah was the only armed group in the country and operated a state within a state.
The opposition is led by the Shia Hizbollah movement and also includes the bloc of the Christian leader, General Michel Aoun. But his supporters have been much less in evidence at the demonstrations over the last few days.
The precise circumstances of the death of 21-year-old Ahmed Mahmoud are still not known, nor is there any clarity over who shot him. Mr Mahmoud, a Shia, was hit by a bullet during clashes that broke out in his majority Sunni neighbourhood of Qasqas, shortly after he came home from the anti-government demonstrations in the centre of Beirut.
Shia religious leaders and representatives of the Amal movement to which Mr Mahmoud’s family is close, called for calm and asked mourners not to seek revenge.
But television channels belonging to both camps are contributing to the rising tensions. Hizbollah’s Al-Manar television station and pro-government FutureTV have exchanged accusations over who is responsible for the unrest. “Television war threatens to ignite the fire of strife,” the Al-Balad newspaper on Tuesday said in a front page headline.
The opposition is demanding a blocking minority in a “national unity” government that would prepare for new elections. Hizbollah accuses the government of not having supported it sufficiently in the summer war with Israel.
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