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Lebanon army chief warns of sectarian tensions

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Lebanon's army commander Jean Qahwaji warned on Tuesday that sectarian tensions after attacks against several Sunni clerics posed "the most dangerous security challenge" to the country for years.

Speaking to Lebanon's As-Safir newspaper, he said the situation was "the most dangerous security challenge in eight years," in an apparent reference to the period around the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Qahwaji's comments came after protesters took to the streets for a second night, blocking roads and burning tyres in anger over two separate incidents on Sunday in which Sunni clerics were attacked in mostly-Shiite ares.

"What happened showed clearly where the sectarian, political and confessional incitement happening around the clock could lead," he told the newspaper.

Qahwaji urged Lebanese politicians and clerics "to assume their responsibilities in order to put a stop to anyone contributing to incitement against anyone else in his homeland."

He said that "tens of thousands of military personnel are deployed from the far south to the far north," warning his countrymen to "feel the size of the risks to the country."

Troops on Monday night dispersed protests over the attacks, and the army has arrested several people suspected of involvement in the incidents.

Sunday's attacks took place in two separate areas of Beirut -- with two clerics attacked in the first incident and a third in the second -- sparking angry demonstrations.

All three men were hospitalised in the wake of 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.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati, in Italy for the inauguration of the new pope, urged calm after the incidents, pledging the perpetrators would be caught.

The attacks were also condemned by Shiite groups Hezbollah and Amal in a joint statement that called the incidents a bid "to stir sectarian strife" and urged the attackers be held responsible.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130319/lebanon-army-chief-warns-sectarian-tensions