Gunbattle in Beirut erupts amid mounting fears of Syria spillover

Lebanese Sunni Muslims have been accused of arson and blocking a road in Beirut to protest the killing of two members of the March 14 political alliance. (Reuters)

A gunbattle has erupted in Beirut as fears mounted that the conflict in neighboring Syria is bleeding across the border.

Two people were killed and at least 18 others were wounded in the clashes that erupted late Sunday and continued early Monday, Al Arabiya reported.

An Associated Press reporter at the scene said the clashes involved pro- and anti-Syrian groups. Gunmen were roaming the streets and several roads were blocked.

The fighting comes hours after Lebanese soldiers fatally shot an anti-Syrian cleric and his bodyguard when they failed to stop at a checkpoint.

Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Wahid, a Sunni Muslim cleric, and Mohammed Hussein Miraib, both members of the Lebanon-based March 14 political alliance, were shot in their car as they sped through an army checkpoint without stopping.

Residents of the northern region of Akkar blocked off roads and burned tires to protest against the deaths. The main coastal highway as well as roads in the capital Beirut were also blocked by enraged residents.

The Lebanese army said it deeply regretted the incident and that a committee will investigate.

“The leadership of the army expresses deep regret for the death of the two victims ... It will immediately form an investigative committee comprised of senior officers and military police under the relevant court,” the army said in a statement.

Last week, clashes sparked by the Syrian crisis killed at least eight people in the northern city of Tripoli.

Many Sunni Muslims in Lebanon’s north sympathize with Syria’s Sunni-led uprising against Assad and say the Lebanese army is taking orders from Damascus.

Syrian troops were garrisoned in Lebanon, a tiny country still recovering from its own 15-year civil war, until 2005.

“Nine people were wounded in the Tariq al-Jadede district (in southern Beirut),” a security source told Reuters.

A witness said that two Sunni Muslim groups were fighting each other, but it was not clear how the violence had started.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati tried to quell growing tensions. “The government is determined to continue to shoulder its national responsibilities amid this critical period in Lebanon and the region, and it will take all measures necessary to preserve civil peace,” he said in a statement.

Some troops pulled out of Akkar to prevent tensions from escalating, security source and residents said.

Beirut-based political commentator Rami Khouri said recent violence in the northern port of Tripoli had been linked to events in Syria.

“You have tensions in the area going back years but this has been exacerbated by the situation in Syria ... Syria is not the primary factor, but it is related,” he said.

Lebanese opposition chief Saad al-Hariri called on “residents of Akkar to remain calm, and not to fall into the trap of igniting sectarian tensions,” according to AFP.

Hariri’s March 14 movement will push to ensure that those who killed the cleric “and those who ordered the killing” are held accountable, he said in a statement.

Some Lebanese Sunnis have accused the Lebanese army of toeing the Syrian regime’s line.

Lebanese politics is divided into pro- and anti-Damascus camps.

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