Thursday, May 15, 2008

Beirut Brief - May 15

BEIRUT Brief – MAY 15, 2008

Calm seems to have returned to the city. More road blocks have been lifted and the highway to Damascus (the border crossing at Masnaa) and airport road have been open.

Last night the Minister of Information, explained that the government agreed to rescind the decision, which triggered last week’s violent conflict. After the statement was made around 11 pm, celebratory gunfire erupted throughout Beirut. Supporters of the opposition celebrated a major victory for the opposition.

Opposition: Late this morning, the deputy secretary general of Hezbollah, made a televised conference seemed positive that the competing parties would be able to reach a political agreement. He said that the opposition would “return things” to normal once the political leaders of the government and opposition went into talks to negotiate a solution for a 17 month long political stand off.

March 14: The government is conceding to the opposition’s demands for the sake of “greater national interest”, explained begrudgingly the Information Minister. The recent events are a serious blow to the government and its political supporters. Humiliated, their speeches are still filled with anger. Statements resound dismay at the way Hezbollah and its supporters used violence and weapons to get its way.

Arab League Ministers arrived in Beirut to intervene, deescalate and ultimately halt the fighting, which have resulted in scores of dead (AP: 81). Fearful that the situation would spin out of control, the Arab league ministers provided a platform for the competing political factions to go into talks.

These could start as early as Monday and will be hosted by the Qatari government in Doha. Essentially, the Lebanese saga will be put on hold until a solution is reached in the Gulf next week.

The talks would cover the following points, which have been put on hold during the 17 month political stalemate:
* How to share power in the cabinet, ie. work out a new formula of sectarian based posts
* Details of a new parliamentary law which would give the opposition greater representation

Opposition has agreed to the open up the airport road, hence airport activity can resume.
As of this afternoon/today there will be only incoming flights, nothing outgoing.
Tomorrow, regular flight patterns are due to resume.

After the Storm


The piece which is slightly edited led to a pretty large response from the public.
I was interested in seeing what people were saying in the US. Makes me think that we need more news outlets to let people get a bigger picture of what is happening out here.

By Irina Prentice

BEIRUT – By Friday afternoon, the street battles which have flared across Beirut over the last three days seemed to have abated somewhat, though sporadic gunfire could still be heard in different areas of the city.

During these tense 72 hours, mostly Shiite Hezbollah and Amal gunmen managed to seize nearly all of the Lebanese capital's Sunni Muslim sector from foes loyal to the U.S.-backed government. At least 11 people have been killed and more than 20 wounded in the armed conflict between the Iranian and Syrian backed Hezbollah fighters and gunmen loyal to the government.

SLIDESHOW: Fighting roils Beirut

Beirut, perched between the sparkling Mediterranean and a green mountain range, has been badly shaken by the violence – the worst sectarian clashes the country has seen since the 15-year civil war from 1975-1990. The skirmishes echo off the mountains, amplifying the sound of explosions as they occur.

Throughout Thursday night, heavy fighting took place, with machine gun fire, rocket-propelled grenades and pistol shots making sleep almost impossible for most residents. Compounding the magnitude of the sound was a thunderstorm, which unexpectedly erupted in the same way the armed conflict had a few hours earlier.

"The thunderstorm… eerie timing" said Hanna Defuria, visiting her sister who just moved to Beirut two weeks ago. "It was hard to tell what was thunder and what were gunshots, but when the storm passed there were no gunshots."

Added Laura Defuria, Hanna’s sister: "Amazingly, I don’t feel unsafe. Maybe it is because I am new to the situation, but I feel like it is far away although it is very close."

The sisters are indeed close to the action – they are staying in an apartment on the same street where Saad Hariri, one of Lebanon’s top Sunni lawmakers, lives. Head of the Future Movement and deputy in the parliament, Hariri’s residence suffered damage from a rocket-propelled grenade, and the television station and newspaper affiliated with his political party were attacked and ransacked.

Waking up to pock-marked streets
The Beirut residents who actually managed to sleep during the night woke up to television images displaying empty streets patrolled by armed militiamen. Damage displayed on the news varied from pockmarked storefronts to shot-up cars parked in the street.

A U.S. citizen studying at the American University of Beirut said "that bullets whizzed by my place in the night." A little shook up, he commented on the relaxing atmosphere in mostly Christian East Beirut, which had remained mostly free of violence.

Meantime, Joe, a supporter of the Hezbollah opposition, expressed his pleasure at the turn of events. (Like most people I spoke to, he asked that his last name not be used because of the volatility of the situation.)

"Look, it is time that there is a change in the government," he said. "They have been robbing the country blind, and this is simply unacceptable." According to him, Hezbollah is only doing what is best for Lebanon, and will pull back once a change in the government takes place.

But supporters of the current government are fearful that a forceful change of guard of the government will lead to a Shiite takeover, and lead to an invitation for Syria’s return. "The situation is not good," said Anthony, a supporter of the current government led by Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. "Stay home today if you can."

Hunkering down
Not knowing what to expect, Beirutis in the Christian neighborhood of Achrafiye piled into a nearby supermarket to stock up on provisions for the next few days. Fresh produce shelves were emptied by mid-day and there were long lines at the checkout counter.

Gas stations also experienced increased activity. "Things are calm, but if they get bad again … I will take my family to the mountains," said one driver.

Although the atmosphere seemed to have calmed by Friday afternoon, most people seemed to be staying indoors and watching the situation carefully – walking in the quiet streets you can hear the sound of television reports drifting out of open windows.

"We are all on standby," said a man named Mustafa who, like many others, had been following the news all day.

For more information click here: Q & A: What's happening in Lebanon? NBC News' Richard Engel explains the issues behind the battles in Beirut

Irina Prentice is a freelance journalist in Beirut working with NBC News.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Beirut Brief - Ramping Up

Beirut- Morning Wrap

Yesterday afternoon the political fight came to a head, turning to armed conflict throughout key neighborhoods in Beirut. Loud explosions, automatic machine gun fire, rocket propelled grenade, and pistol shots resounded throughout the night.

The fight moved from a vicinity of half a kilometer from my house by Sodeco around 5pm, outwards throughout the city. In the middle of the night, the sound was drowned out by a thunder storm which unexpectedly set in as quickly as the fight which
broke out.

Although, the sky was clear in the day, and the temperature cool, the unusual storm caught many of the inhabitants off guard. The loud thunder drowned out the explosions, the downpour took over and things seem to quiet down until 5 this morning.

"Things were quiet in the neighborhood until about 5 and then it went off", explains an AUB student living in the neighborhood of Hamra.

A foreign journalist living in Hamra explained that clashes have been ongoing since this morning, and the streets have reportedly come under control of the members of the opposition forces Hezbollah and Amal militia despite ongoing exchange of gunfire being resounding throughout the neighborhood.

Television pictures this morning reveal and predominantly deserted Beirut. Shops are closed, no cars on the street. Damage so far: bullet holes in ars, shattered shop fronts, freshly pockmarked uildings, and some smoke out of Hariri's Moustaqbal
Newspaper headquarters.

Reports of dead are varying between 7 and 15, but a tally will probably be difficult to track unless the fighting factions announce the numbers.

The city yesterday was at 60% blocked, making moving between neighborhoods very difficult. The percentage today is rising although there are no firm numbers.
Moving between East and West Beirut has become even more difficult as announcement of the sea road being cut off by opposition Amal forces.

At 3pm yesterday, as I left my work day in the Serrail, the political advisor dropping me off to my house received a call in the car announcing the
opposition's plan to besiege the government seat in the Serrail. This morning, this unconfirmed rumor seems to be becoming a reality, as reports are saying
the Serrail is surrounding by opposition forces.
Unconfirmed reports are saying that the security forces of the Serrail have handed over their weapons, who knows.

On a wider scale, there are reports of fighting in the northern city of Tripoli as well as fighting in the Bekaa valley.

Although the fight which has broken out is predominantly political, it is difficult to separate the sectarian aspect of the conflict whereby so far the greatest clashes are occurring between Sunni and Shia groups. Despite the political wording in both
Nasrallah's and Hariri's, the undertone was such that if you are not with us you are against us, and so bring it on... The night clashes echoed the stances.

Also, something to track is the wider regional Arab response. Depending on today's local political positions and regional positions may help the picture
of what is to come.


In the beginning of the week, the Lebanese government removed the head of security from the airport, a government employee who was a supporter of the
opposition was sacked, and Hezbollah controlled surveillance cameras were removed from the airport. The impact of the decision has been explosive,
yesterday Nasrallah explained in his speech that the decision should be revoked and that anyone tampering with their surveillance system was essentially acting
for the benefit of Israel.

The Hariri well, I don't have it underhand, however it would seem that this morning's results mean that what televised offer he made, it was rejected.


ONE NON-OFFICIAL REPORT Describing a TACTIC on the ground

A pro-opposition source called to explained that the tactic on the ground is to take control of key neighborhoods and news outlets of the various loyalist/ or pro-government factions. From here on, it is a matter of time before government seat will fall.