A LEBANESE protester has been killed outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut after gunmen from the Iranian-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah opened fire as anti-Hezbollah Shiite demonstrators approached.
A military statement said the protesters had barely arrived at the embassy area yesterday when clashes broke out and a civilian opened fire. The embassy is located in Bir Hassan, a predominantly pro-Hezbollah area.
A Lebanese security official identified the man killed as a 28-year-old member of the small Lebanese Option Party which had called for the anti-Hezbollah protest.
The Syrian conflict, in its third year, is increasingly spilling over into Lebanon, home to a fragile mosaic of more than a dozen religious and ethnic groups. The forces of Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, backed by Hezbollah fighters, succeeded last week in driving mostly Sunni Muslim rebels out of a strategic town near the Lebanese border.
The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said last month he would side with Mr Assad until the rebels are defeated. Gunmen from rival religious sects have also gone to Syria to fight on the rebel sides.
Hezbollah’s overt and triumphant participation in the fighting in Qusair has also inflamed political tensions in the country, which is deeply divided among supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime. Clashes in northern Lebanon between rival Lebanese groups since last month claimed more than 28 lives, and rockets have targeted Hezbollah strongholds. Hezbollah’s political rivals have also increased their criticism of the group, deepening a political stalemate that has hit the country in recent months and postponing for 17 months elections that were due this month.
The Option Party is headed by a Shiite politician, Ahmad El Assaad, who has long been opposed to Hezbollah. Yesterday’s clash outside the Iranian embassy marked rare fighting between two opposing Shiite groups.
The protest at the embassy coincided with another rally in central Beirut also criticising Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria’s conflict.
Dozens of protesters, including many Syrians, converged on Beirut’s central Martyrs Square where a large banner read: “Rejecting Hezbollah’s fighting in Syria.” The crowd chanted against Hezbollah’s participation in the conflict, warning that it would bring the fighting to Lebanon.
“Those fighting in Syria are not Lebanese. Their culture, their flag, money and weapons are Iranian,” said Saleh el-Mashnouk, an ardent critic of Hezbollah. “We are here to erase the shame that struck Lebanon because of them.”
Lebanese protester Samara el-Hariri, 31, said Syria’s war is hurting Lebanon’s economy and increasing sectarian tension. “My country is stricken,” she said.
Shiite Iran, Hezbollah’s most important patron, has also strongly backed Syria’s Assad.
In Syria, fighting between government troops and rebels continued in different provinces, including near the capital Damascus and in the northern Aleppo province and its capital. Pro-regime media outlets said that after securing control of Qusair, government forces are preparing to move to recapture the contested city of Aleppo next. But activists said there were no signs of a new push on the city or its surrounding areas.
The fighting in Syria has claimed more than 80,000 lives and displaced several million people. Beside Lebanon, it has also threatened to spill into neighbouring countries, such as Israel and Turkey.