Lebanon’s army has sealed off Beirut's parliamentary district and threatened a crackdown after unrest. Sectarian violence has intensified over the conflict in Syria, where Lebanese have joined opposing sides of the war.
On Friday, security sources reported to news agencies that they had found a rocket launcher, still loaded owing to apparent technical difficulties, at the site from which a Grad rocket was fired overnight, exploding near the capital.
In an ominous statement, the military warned against excessive unrest: "The army leadership again urges citizens to be calm and not to follow rumors and sectarian emotions. It will not be lenient in confronting with force any outlaws or those who harm the armed forces."
On Thursday night, angered by the government's postponing to next year a parliamentary election scheduled for this month, about 100 protesters had scuffled with police near parliament. Twenty camped out overnight outside the ring of barbed wire, vowing to maintain the protest.
As the largely peaceful demonstration unfolded in central Beirut, protesters blocked roads with burning tires elsewhere in the capital and in Bekaa Valley towns in eastern Lebanon. Some demonstrators said they were acting in solidarity with residents of the Sunni Muslim Bekaa town of Arsal, which they say has been cut off by security forces investigating the shooting of four Shiite Muslim men on Sunday.
Security sources told news agencies that a protest near Masnaa, Lebanon's main border crossing with Syria, had left at least two protesters injured. The statement said gunmen fired on army posts in three towns close to the Masnaa border crossing early on Friday. The army returned fire and arrested 22 suspects in raids following the incidents.
Travelers trying to reach Lebanon from Syria on Friday morning had found the border closed for several hours because of the skirmishes. It reopened later in the day.
The fighting in Syria has already driven half a million refugees into Lebanon and worsened the political stalemate that had originally forced the election delay and held up efforts to form a new government. Rockets from suspected Syrian rebel positions have hit Shiite towns in Lebanon since Hezbollah intervened decisively to recapture the Syrian border town of Qusair for President Bashar al-Assad's forces earlier this month.
Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a Sunni leader, warned this week of the potential for "state collapse."
President Michel Suleiman has appealed to Hezbollah to bring its fighters home from Syria, saying that further entanglement there by the Iranian-backed movement will fuel instability in Lebanon, still scarred by its own 1975-1990 civil war.
The army reported the targeting of several military posts and patrols Thursday by protesters, some armed. Gun skirmishes injured four soldiers.
Army commander General Jean Kahwaji was quoted by the local As-Safir newspaper as saying the military would not tolerate any threats to Lebanon's security during what he described as "very critical and very difficult" times.
In central Beirut, activists said they would keep up their protest against the 17-month extension of parliament, agreed by politicians after they failed to break a deadlock over planned changes to the electoral law.
mkg/dr (Reuters, AFP, AP)