Chechen war angers Muslims


A lone pro-Chechen "martyr" fired rocket-propelled grenades at the Russian embassy in Beirut yesterday, killing one policeman and wounding six, before he was shot dead.

At the same time, the Lebanese army was mounting an offensive against 150 Islamist militants holed up in mountainous terrain 45 km east of the northern port city of Tripoli.

The two events were not co-ordinated , and were separate skirmishes within a broad Islamist campaign to secure specific objectives in a fragile Lebanon still recovering from its 1975-1990 civil conflict. But they were sharp reminders that Muslim concerns cannot be ignored by the international community or by Beirut.

The Russian onslaught on Chechnya has angered Muslims throughout "Dar al-Islam" (the "House of Islam"). Ordinary Muslims ask why Russia should be allowed to get away with all-out war against the Chechens when Serbia was punished for its persecution of the Kosovars.

Muslim anger has been inflamed by contact with Caucasian Muslims, driven from their rugged mountains in previous bouts of a conflict going back to the 18th century.

Long settled throughout the Arab world, the Caucasian refugees, known as Charkass or Circassians, maintain close connections with their lost Chechen and Dagestani homelands.

Thus, it is not surprising that a Russian mission in the Levant should be targeted as Moscow escalated its attacks against the Chechen capital.

Far more worrying for the authorities in Beirut is the insurgency in the north involving members of the orthodox Sunni Muslim "Taqfir wal-Hijra" ("Excommunication and Flight"), which assassinated president Anwar Sadat of Egypt in 1981.

During the weekend, militants killed four soldiers and one civilian at the mixed village of Asoun, which was held hostage. The Taq fir band, part of the "Islamist international", is headed by a Lebanese veteran of the war against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. He adopted the nom de guerre Abu Aisheh or "Father of Aisheh".

Taqfir has been blamed for recent church bombings in Tripoli and for attacks on shops selling alcohol. It was responsible for a 1994 attack on a car carrying Serbian bishops to a conference at the Greek Orthodox Christian university north of Beirut.

While Taqfir's unachievable goal is to convert Lebanon into an Islamic state, its members are also motivated by resentment against Damascus, which has permitted thousands of Syrians from the Alawite Shia minority to settle in northern Lebanon.

Beirut's two leading Sunni Muslim politicians, the Prime Minister, Dr Selim al-Hoss, and his predecessor, Mr Rafiq Hariri, roundly condemned Taqfir. President Emile Lahoud, a former army commander, is expected to initiate a sharp crackdown on Taqfir and other dissident elements.