BEIRUT – Sunni Muslim demonstrators used burning tires to close key roads across Lebanon on Tuesday to protest a blockade of their brethren by Shiite gunmen, officials said, as the country struggles to keep a lid on simmering sectarian tensions enflamed by the civil war in neighboring Syria.
In one of the most ominous signs, an AP reporter saw protesters marching among cars stopped at a Beirut roadblock and warning drivers with Shiite emblems on their vehicles that Sunnis would not be cowed by the powerful Shiite militant Hezbollah group. There was no violence, and all of the cars eventually moved on unscathed.
Lebanon, still haunted by its own 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, has been deeply polarized by the current conflict in Syria. Lebanese Sunnis largely support the predominantly Sunni opposition in Syria, while Shiites have backed President Bashar Assad’s government.
That dynamic has sent sectarian hatreds soaring in Lebanon, particularly since the country’s most powerful political and military force, Hezbollah, dispatched its fighters last year to Syria to bolster Assad’s forces. Many Sunnis also resent Hezbollah’s unmatched political and military position in Lebanon.
Against that backdrop, hundreds of angry young Sunni protesters forced roads to close Tuesday across the country to protest a dayslong Hezbollah blockade on the predominantly Sunni town of Arsal near the Syrian border.
The demonstrators blocked the highway linking Beirut with predominantly Shiite south Lebanon, the highway running from the Lebanese capital to the Syrian capital, the main road leading to north Lebanon, as well the main route from town of Saadnayel in the eastern Bekaa Valley to the Baalbek region, a Hezbollah stronghold, according to security officials.
In the Kaskas district of the capital, meanwhile, three protesters were wounded after the army opened fire to try to disperse the demonstrators, security officials said on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
That Arsal is emerging as a sort of rallying cry for many Lebanese Sunnis is not a complete surprise. The town has long been a friction point, serving as a haven for Syrian rebels and refugees, as well as a key transit point for weapons and fighters in the conflict next door.
But the blockade also appears to be aimed at containing a fresh influx of Syrian rebels and refugees into Arsal since Sunday, when President Bashar Assad’s troops and his Hezbollah allies captured the opposition stronghold of Yabroud, just across the border.
Shiite gunmen made clear their intentions to keep Arsal sealed off Tuesday by opening fire at vehicles that tried to drive up toward the checkpoint from the town, deputy mayor Ahmad Fliti said.