Sectarian tension ‘most dangerous’ challenge in eight years: Lebanon army chief

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Lebanon's army commander Jean Qahwaji warned on Tuesday that sectarian tensions after attacks against several Sunni clerics posed “the most dangerous security challenge” to the country for years.

Speaking to Lebanon's As-Safir newspaper, he said the situation was “the most dangerous security challenge in eight years,” in an apparent reference to the period around the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Qahwaji's comments came after protesters took to the streets for a second night, blocking roads and burning tyres in anger over two separate incidents on Sunday in which Sunni clerics were attacked in mostly-Shiite areas.

“What happened showed clearly where the sectarian, political and confessional incitement happening around the clock could lead,” he told the newspaper.

Qahwaji urged Lebanese politicians and clerics “to assume their responsibilities in order to put a stop to anyone contributing to incitement against anyone else in his homeland.”

He said that “tens of thousands of military personnel are deployed from the far south to the far north,” warning his countrymen to “feel the size of the risks to the country.”

Troops on Monday night dispersed protests over the attacks, and the army has arrested several people suspected of involvement in the incidents.

Sunday's attacks took place in two separate areas of Beirut – with two clerics attacked in the first incident and a third in the second – sparking angry demonstrations.

All three men were hospitalized in the wake of the attacks.

The incident comes amid fears in Lebanon of rising tensions between the country's religious and political groups, with the civil war in neighboring Syria threatening to exacerbate existing divides between Lebanon's communities.

On Monday, Syrian warplanes hit the town of Arsal, in eastern Lebanon, an act that was described by Lebanese President Michel Sleiman as “unacceptable.” Damascus however, denied its responsibility of the attacks.

“The president of the republic, General Michel Sleiman, considers Syrian air strikes inside Lebanese territory an unacceptable violation of Lebanese sovereignty,” Sleiman said in a statement from his office.

The remarks were the first official Lebanese confirmation of the air strikes a day earlier, which hit the town of Arsal, in eastern Lebanon, close to the Syrian border.

The statement said Sleiman had instructed Foreign Minister Adnan Mansur “to send a message of protest to the Syrian side so that such operations are not repeated.”

But Syria, in its first comments on the attacks, denied it was involved.

“The information being peddled by the Lebanese, Arab and international media claiming that Syria fighter jets bombed inside Lebanese territory is baseless,” a foreign ministry official told state news agency SANA.

“The ministry completely denies this information and reiterates that it respects Lebanese sovereignty and remains committed to the security and security of its brother Lebanon,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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