(AFP) – Tensions flared in Beirut overnight after three Sunni clerics were attacked in two separate incidents in majority Shiite areas of the Lebanese capital, sparking angry demonstrations.
“Sheikhs Mazen Hariri and Ahmad Fakhran of Dar al-Fatwa were attacked (Sunday night) in the area of Khandaq al-Ghamiq, while on their way to the Mohamed al-Amin Mosque,” Lebanon’s official National News Agency reported Monday.
Dar al-Fatwa is Lebanon’s top Sunni clerical body.
Both clerics were taken to the city’s Makassed Hospital for treatment, the agency added, with Lebanese media running pictures of the men, one in bed wearing a neck brace and the other seated, bruising visible on his face.
A third Sunni cleric, Sheikh Omar Imami, was attacked in a separate incident in the Shiyah neighbourhood in the southern outskirts of Beirut, which is also predominantly Shiite.
He received initial treatment in Beirut before being transferred to a hospital in east Lebanon, the agency said.
As news of the attacks spread, protesters took the streets near Makassed Hospital, demanding the arrest of the attackers and laying burning tyres across roads to block traffic.
In a statement issued around midnight, the military said it had arrested several suspects in the two attacks.
“Following the attacks on several clerics in the areas of Khandaq al-Ghamiq and Shiyah, an army patrol went to the homes of the perpetrators and was able to arrest five of them,” the military said.
It added that the military was continuing to search for additional suspects in 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 neighbouring Syria threatening to exacerbate existing divides between Lebanon’s communities.
Overnight, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, in Italy for the inauguration of the new pope, urged calm.
“God protect Lebanon from sectarian strife,” he wrote on his official Twitter account.
“The perpetrators will be held accountable, whatever party they come from.”
The attacks were also condemned by Lebanese Shiite groups Hezbollah and Amal, which issued a joint statement calling the incidents a bid “to stir sectarian strife” and urging the attackers be held responsible.