21 February 2008

Lebanese Arm Themselves for Fear of Civil War

As street clashes between pro- and anti-government supporters in Beirut fuel fears of a new civil war, many Lebanese have started to arm themselves as they prepare for the worst, arms dealers say.
"Groups or individuals, looking to make themselves more secure, are starting to buy weapons" on the black market, said one dealer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"If a Kalashnikov would sell for between 100 and 150 dollars on the black market a year ago, the price today is 1,000 dollars," the dealer told AFP. The price of a more sophisticated Dragunov sniper rifle has more than trebled from 800 dollars to 2,700 dollars over the same period, he said.

He added that the most popular weapons on the market were the easy-to-use Kalashnikov or U.S.-made M-16 rifle.

Officially, all of Lebanon's warring militias except Hizbullah were disarmed under the peace deal which ended the 1975-90 civil war. But there is widespread suspicion that many of them have in fact stockpiled their light weapons.

Druze leader Walid Jumblat, a prominent anti-Syrian politician, charged in the past week that "some groups in the mountains and elsewhere" have recently "been armed by their main arms supplier" -- an allusion to Syria.

Tradition is also playing a role; most Lebanese keep a weapon at home. Some have now begun updating their arsenals, while others have been preparing to leave the country, one Beirut-based Christian businessman said as he proudly showed off a new rifle with sophisticated infrared sights which set him back 1,250 dollars.

He said he recently showed his 19-year-old son how to fire "the old family Kalashnikov."

"If ever the armed groups come into our area, to smash up our buildings, we have to know how to defend ourselves, that's all," he said.

Fadi Fadel, a law professor at the Antoine University outside Beirut, said he was concerned at the increase in sales of light weapons.

"The problem is that there is still no international convention stopping the sale of these arms, and that the main manufacturing countries are sitting on the U.N. Security Council", he said referring to Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.

As the U.S. standoff with Iran plays itself out in a proxy local battle between the Western-backed government and the Syrian- and Iranian-backed opposition, Lebanon has staggered into its worst political crisis since the 15-year civil war, which claimed 150,000 lives.

The political standoff, exacerbated by a spate of recent street clashes between the rival sides' supporters, has blocked the election of a president for almost three months, leaving a destabilizing power vacuum.

"Are we heading towards civil war? In some ways, we've already reached that point," said a businessman who belonged to one of the Christian militias during the war and asked not to be named.
"It remains to be seen what form it takes," he added.

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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.