22 October 2007

Secret armies pose sinister new threat to Lebanon

Lebanon is peopled with ghosts. But the phantoms now returning to haunt this damaged country –the militias which tore it apart more than 30 years ago – are real. Guns are flooding back into the country – $800 for an AK-47, $3,700 for a brand-new French Famas – as Lebanon security apparatus hunt desperately for the leadership of the new and secret armies.

Only last week, they arrested two followers of ex-General Michel Aoun – the pro-Hezbollah opposition's apparent candidate for president – for allegedly training pro-Aounist gunmen. After themselves being accused of acting like a militia for arresting Dario Kodeih and Elie Abi Younes, the Lebanese Internal Security Force issued a photograph of Christian gunmen holding AK-47 and M-16 rifles. Aoun's party replied quaintly that "they were just out having fun with real weapons but were not undergoing any military training". Fun indeed.

What now worries the Lebanese authorities, however, is the sheer scale of weaponry arriving in Lebanon. It appears to include new Glock pistols (asking price $1,000). There are growing fears, moreover, that many of these guns are from the vast stock of 190,000 rifles and pistols which the US military "lost" when they handed them out to Iraqi police officers without registering their numbers or destination. The American weapons included 125,000 Glock pistols. The Lebanese-Iraqi connection is anyway well established. A growing number of suicide bombers in Iraq come from the Lebanese cities of Tripoli and Sidon.

Fouad Siniora's Lebanese government – supplied by the US with recent shipments of new weapons for the official Lebanese army – has now admitted that militias are also being created among Muslim pro-government groups. Widespread reports that Saad Hariri – son of the assassinated ex-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri – has himself created an embryo militia have been officially denied. But a number of armed Hariri supporters initially opened fire into the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian camp after its takeover by pro-Al-Qaida gunmen last April. Hariri's men also have forces in Beirut (supposedly unarmed) and again this is denied. Those who suspect the opposite, however, might like to check the register of the Mayflower Hotel in the western sector of Beirut.

The Fatah Al-Islam rebels who took over Nahr el-Bared last April – 400 died in the 206-day siege by the army, 168 of them soldiers – also used new weapons, including sniper rifles. In a gloomy ceremony last week, the military buried 98 of the 222 Muslim fighters who died, in a mass grave in Tripoli. They included Palestinians but also men from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Tunis and Algeria.

Among the militants of Fatah Al -Islam still sought by Lebanese authorities are three Russians – "Abu Abdullah", Tamour Vladimir Khoskov and Aslan Eric Yimkojayev – all believed to be from the former Soviet Muslim republics. A fourth Russian citizen, Sergei Vladimir Fisotsk, is in custody in Beirut. Along with three Palestinians member of Fatah Al-Islam, he faces a possible death sentence.

Siniora's government is well aware of the dangers that these new developments represent – "such a situation could lead to a new civil war", one minister said of the military training taking place in Lebanon – in a country in which only the Hezbollah militia, classed as a "resistance" movement, hitherto had permission to bear arms. But Hezbollah too has been re-arming; not only with rockets but with small arms that could only be used in street fighting. Aoun's supporters were allegedly practising with weapons near the town of Byblos north of Beirut but there are reports of further training in the Bekaa Valley.

Military outposts manned by Palestinian gunmen loyal to Syria have reappeared in the Bekaa, closely watched by a Lebanese army which was severely blooded in the Nahr El-Bared fighting. Sayed Mohamed Hussein Fadlallah, one of the most senior – and wisest – Shi'ite clerics in Lebanon, warned last Friday: "Rearming as well as the tense and sectarianism-loaded political rhetoric, all threaten Lebanon's diversity and expose Lebanon to divisions." Fadlallah stated that the US – which supports Hariri – wished to divide the country. The American plan to chop up Iraq, it seems, is another ghost that has crept silently into Lebanon.-(RFisk/Independent)

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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.