BEIRUT, Lebanon – Police and soldiers ringed a university Monday as students returned for the first time since a political spat in the cafeteria mushroomed into street riots that killed four people and inflamed Sunni-Shiite tensions.
Security guards at Beirut Arab University searched all students at the entrance and denied access to those without student IDs. Hundreds of police officers and troops in armored personnel carriers watched the students arrive in a show of force meant to deter troublemakers.
The clashes of Jan. 25, which quickly spread beyond the campus, were the worst cases of sectarian violence since the 1975-90 civil war. Muslim Sunnis fought Muslim Shiites with rocks, sticks and even guns, leaving four people dead and dozens injured. Scores of cars were trashed and some were set ablaze.
In the evening, the army imposed a rare nighttime curfew and leaders of both communities appealed to their supporters to withdraw from the streets.
Fearing more violence, authorities took advantage of a Shiite religious holiday to close all schools and universities through Jan. 31. Only the Beirut Arab University and the state-run Lebanese University were ordered closed until Monday.
The head of student affairs at Beirut Arab University, Hassan Dalati, said that attendance on Monday was “almost normal and hopefully it will be a day just like any other.”
He said the heavy security measures were warranted. “We cannot afford to let something like this happen again,” he said.
The clashes at the university stemmed from a larger stalemate between the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the Hezbollah-led opposition, which wants Saniora to resign and make way for a Cabinet in which Hezbollah and its allies would have a veto power.
That crisis began in November when six ministers loyal to Hezbollah and its allies quit Saniora’s Cabinet after talks with the government broke down. Then on Dec. 1, opposition supporters began a sit-in in downtown Beirut in front of the government that continues to the day, but the government has not budged.
Saniora, who is backed by a slim parliamentary majority and many foreign states such as France and the United States, has refused to step down.
The tension pits Sunnis, who largely back the government, against Shiites, who are led by Hezbollah and its allies. Christians are divided between the two groups.