By Don Duncan
Lebanese security forces spread across central Beirut yesterday and several schools closed in response to tensions surrounding draft indictments issued over the killing of the country's prime minister, Rafiq al Hariri, in 2005.
The deployment took place after Shi'ite citizens took to the streets in a half dozen neighbourhoods in the early morning across the capital. Among them were groups of men dressed in black, which alarmed Sunni Muslim residents, who said they were supporters of Hizbollah or its Shi'ite ally Amal.
At least four gatherings of up to 30 people each took place with the men carrying hand-held radios, the Associated Press reported. One gathering was about 400 metres from the Grand Serail, the seat of government in central Beirut, and security officials closed the roads leading to the building.
Lebanese security officials confirmed the gatherings, which dispersed by late morning and appeared to be a protest in the hours after a long-awaited indictment was released on Monday evening in the assassination of Hariri, which killed 22 others.
Both Hizbollah and Amal, the two main Shi'ite political groups in Lebanon, denied that the street actions were organised by their parties.
The prosecutor for the United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon filed the indictments, which are expected to implicate Hizbollah members in Hariri's death, on Monday. The indictments' contents were not revealed.
Lebanon's government was toppled last week by the Hizbollah-dominated opposition, over the government's backing for the tribunal, which the Shiite group says is a US-Israeli instrument to harm it.
Since rumours surfaced months ago that the probe would indict members of Hizbollah the Shi'ite group and its opposition allies have been eager to discredit the process. Judge Daniel Fansen, the pre-trial judge who is examining the viability of the indictments confidentially, could take months to approve any indictments.
Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, said: "Hizbollah has committed itself to stay off the streets. There is no question in my mind that the people who gathered were Hizbollah sympathisers, but Hizbollah were very quick to disclaim it... The country has been going through conflict since the late 1960s so people react quickly to rumours and the semblance of violence.
"The names [of the indictees] have still to be revealed by the tribunal. Real demonstrations will not take place before then but what happened [yesterday] morning serves as an indicator [of what is to come]."
Yesterday, security in Beirut was increased. Roads leading to and near the parliament building were closed to traffic.
"Rumours start very fast and people react very fast and pull their kids from school," said 47-year-old Mazen, who declined to give his surname: "I took my kids to school in the morning and I had to go take them home at 12, because all the parents had come and taken their kids home."
Parents pulled their children from school yesterday as word spread of the gatherings.
The education minister, Hassan Mneimneh, told Lebanese TV stations that the situation in the capital had "returned to normal" by late morning and that today would be "a normal school day".
Lebanon's interim prime minster, Saad Hariri, Rafiq Hariri's son, and his government alliance refused to bend to the opposition's demands to sever Lebanon's ties with the tribunal.
Now, Lebanon is faced with the task of forming a new government. President Michel Suleiman planned to consult parliament this week on the nomination of a new prime minister, but he postponed the talks until January 24 so as to enable regional and world powers to help broker a solution to the impasse.
After a summit on the Lebanese crisis with the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, in Damascus on Monday, the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, and the Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, arrived in Beirut yesterday in a bid to mediate a solution. They met Mr Suleiman, the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri and Mr Hariri, as well as officials from Hizbollah. On the agenda was a bid to revive a compromise initiative that was being developed for months by Syria and Saudi Arabia - patrons to opposing sides of the Lebanese political divide - which came to a halt early last week, just prior to the government collapse.
Turkey and France are also working on creating an international "contact group" through which to mediate a solution between Lebanon's rival camps.
The heady international diplomacy and domestic political statecraft seemed an abstraction from the goings-on of Beirut's Hamra Street yesterday afternoon. Many passersby said they were not worried, or that they simply did not care any more.
"I just care about my life, how to get money, how to live," said Hassan Mdallal, 23, on a cigarette break from his job at an H&M clothing store. "Every four to five years, there's a war or something. So this is the same story again."