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Fresh Sectarian Clashes Erupt in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley

By Edward Yeranian
17 June 2008

Lebanese Army sources are reporting that at least three people were killed in sectarian clashes, overnight, in two warring Bekaa Valley villages. It was the second time in a week that fighting has erupted in the region, as Edward Yeranian reports from Beirut.

Gunfire erupted overnight in two neighboring villages in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, leaving several casualties.

Lebanon's New TV reports that dozens of villagers have fled their houses in the towns of Saadnayel and Taalbaya because of the fighting and that the Lebanese Army is trying to regain control of large swathes of territory controlled by rival militiamen.

The main highway was also reportedly closed due to the fighting, with rockets landing near the roadside, frightening motorists.

It was the second time in a week that pro-government Sunni militiamen have clashed with pro-Hezbollah Shi'ite rivals. Shi'ite and Sunni muslim communities in the Bekaa Valley have a lengthy history of clan rivalry.

The French press agency, AFP, reports that overnight fighting quickly got out of hand, with rival militiamen "firing automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortar shells."

Member of Parliament Assem Araji, who belongs to the pro-Hezbollah "People's Movement" pleaded with Lebanon's top political leaders to intervene quickly to quell the recent wave of violence.

He says negotiations need to be held on the local level, and especially high-level political talks in Beirut to stop the deterioration of the situation in the Central Bekaa region, because it is a tinderbox. He says anyone who knows the area knows that a crisis there will affect the entire region and that everyone is pleading for something to be done.

Unrest and sectarian violence between Lebanon's Sunni-muslim and Shi'ite-muslim communities spread from Beirut to other parts of the country, after a military show of force by the pro-Syrian Hezbollah, which briefly took control of mostly Sunni West Beirut on May 9.

The fighting in Beirut ended with a political agreement between feuding Lebanese leaders in Doha, Qatar, and the election of a new president, Army Commander Michel Suleiman, alongside an accord to form of national unity government, which remains in limbo.

Dr. Paul Salem, Director of the Carnegie Center for Peace in the Middle East, says that one should not read too much into the recent Bekaa Valley fighting, and he does not think that the situation is going to spiral out of control.

"I think its part of this aftershock of the earthquake that happened in May in Beirut," he explained. "Tensions rose all over the country, in the north and in parts of Mount Lebanon, and parts of the Bekaa. But, I think the Bekaa is more prone, because people are more armed, they are more clannish, and things got a bit out of hand. I do not see it as an overwhelming concern, because I think between the army and the president, Hezbollah and Syria, in general - who are now closer to be reading from the same page - they do sort of want to clamp down on things."

Tensions between Lebanon's Sunnis and Shi'ites, however, have yet to subside, and the country's top Sunni religious leader, Sheikh Mohammed Rachid Qabbani is demanding that Hezbollah "apologize for last month's attack on Beirut."

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