The Lebanese were turning out in tens of thousands on Thursday for two opposing Beirut gatherings – Shiite Muslims supporters of Hezbollah to bid farewell to its slain top commander Imad Mughniyeh and their pro-Western opponents at a downtown square to mark former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s 2005 assassination.
Amid fears of violence between the opposing sides, authorities deployed thousands of troops and blocked major roads.
Hezbollah urged crowds to its stronghold of south Beirut to march behind the coffin of Imad Mughniyeh, the group’s former security chief and one of world’s most wanted fugitive militants, killed in a car bombing in Syria on Tuesday night.
The group called on supporters to “carry on our shoulders a leader of whose leadership we were proud, and a martyr by whose martyrdom we’re honored.”
“Let us make our voice heard by all the enemies and murderers that we will be victorious, no matter the sacrifices,” said a Hezbollah statement aired on the militant group’s television station Al-Manar.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah – himself in hiding because of fears of assassination since the 2006 summer war with Israel – was expected to address mourners through a video broadcast over a giant screen.
Hezbollah and its top ally, Iran, have accused Israel of Mughniyeh’s slaying. Israel denied any involvement, but officials made no effort to conceal their approval of his death. The United States welcomed it.
Mughniyeh’s death from a bomb that blew up his SUV in Damascus could raise tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, as well as with the militants’ allies, Syria and Iran. Israel and Hezbollah fought a bloody war in the summer of 2006, and some Lebanese figures close to the Shiite group called Wednesday for attacks against Israel in retaliation for Mughniyeh’s death.
In Israel, officials said security instructed embassies and Jewish institutions around the world to go on alert on Thursday for fear of revenge attacks, and the army raised its awareness on its border with Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories.
Mughniyeh’s slaying also could stir up more domestic turmoil in deeply divided Lebanon, where the Hezbollah-led opposition is locked in a bitter power struggle with the Western-backed government.
By the time Mughniyeh’s funeral gets under way in early afternoon, a few miles (kilometers) away in downtown Beirut, a mass rally by government supporters and opponents of Hezbollah marking the third anniversary of Hariri’s assassination was expected to wind down.
The anti-Syrian parliamentary majority had hoped that a massive show of popular support, perhaps by hundreds of thousands, on the Hariri anniversary would force the Hezbollah-led opposition to compromise in a 15-month political stalemate that has paralyzed the country.
The anniversary rally also meant to send a message to Syria to stay out of Lebanon politics. Billboards on major highways called for supporters to attend: “Come down, so they don’t come back.”
Hariri’s supporters blame Syria for killing the prominent politician in a massive suicide truck bombing in Beirut three years ago and for a series of bombings and assassinations since. Hariri’s assassination ignited mass protests and international pressure that forced Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon after 29 years of control.
Developments on Thursday could define the course for the next phase in the political confrontation, whether Lebanon slides further into chaos – and possibly civil war – or takes a step back from the brink.
But statements from government coalition leaders offering condolences in the wake of Mughniyeh’s killing, indicated that majority leaders were toning down their sharp rhetoric, dominant in recent days, so as not to further inflame tensions with the opposition. Such tensions have spilled into sporadic violence in recent months.
One of the friction points is the opposition encampment in the downtown area, which has occupied part of the square where the pro-government groups were holding the rally. Razor wire and troops separate the two sides, with opposition officials warning that any attempt to overrun the tents, which lie largely empty, was tantamount to war.
Authorities have deployed some 8,000 troops and policemen to protect the downtown rally Thursday and leading roads. Armored carriers took up positions on major road intersections, and additional razor wire was brought in to separate the two sides on rain-drenched streets.
With fears growing of street violence, the US Embassy encouraged American citizens in Lebanon to limit all but essential travel Thursday.
Mughniyeh’s body was brought to south Beirut from Syria on Wednesday afternoon and laid in a refrigerated coffin, wrapped in Hezbollah’s yellow flag.
His father – Fayez, a south Lebanese farmer – as well as Hezbollah’s deputy leader, Sheik Naim Kassem, and other Hezbollah officials received condolences inside a hall from allied Lebanese politicians and representatives of militant Palestinian factions.
Mughniyeh was also on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists, and the US State Department had offered a $5 million (Dh18.25 million) reward for information leading to his arrest or conviction. He was indicted in the US for his role in planning the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner in which a US Navy diver was killed.
He was also accused of carrying out or directing a series of spectacular attacks, including engineering the vicious suicide bombings of the US Marines barracks and two embassy compounds in Beirut in 1983-84.
A total of about 260 Americans were killed in those attacks. Mughniyeh was also believed to be the mastermind behind the kidnappings of Americans and other Westerners in Beirut in the 1980s. Israel accused Mughniyeh of involvement in the 1992 and 1994 bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, attacks that killed more than 100 people.
He vanished in the early 1990s, reportedly undergoing plastic surgery and moving between Lebanon, Syria and Iran on fake passports. (AP)
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