Beirut ghost town on eve of summer season, again

BEIRUT — “Gone fishing” says the notice on the door of a club in a usually bustling Beirut bar district which has been deserted since bomb attacks last week.

Beirut’s streets are largely empty after dark, Lebanese fearing a repeat of the night-time blasts, two of them in Beirut and a third to the east of the capital.

The bombs, which killed one and wounded 24 people, all hit close to popular spots for eating and drinking.

Instead of gearing up for the summer season, bars and restaurants across the capital are now either closed or pulling down their shutters earlier than normal.

“We’ve hardly done any business for a week,” said Majed Al Moussawi, a barman in the Gemayzeh district of the city, which is usually choked with traffic late into the night.

“Now there’s hardly anyone on the streets,” Moussawi said.

Policemen armed with assault rifles who patrol the area have not inspired confidence among restaurateurs, who have decided to hire a private security firm with sniffer dogs.

Although bombs have not been uncommon in Beirut since the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the emergence of an Al Qaeda-inspired group in the north of the country has created extra cause for concern.

The Fateh Al Islam group, which has been battling the army at a Palestinian refugee camp for over a week, has warned it may expand its fight outside the north, lifting tension in Beirut.

Lebanese soldiers opened fire on a car which tried to drive through a checkpoint in the capital on Monday, killing three.

“People are terrified,” said Tony Oweiss, part owner of a juice bar in Gemayzeh. The area had not been this quiet since last year’s war between Israel and Lebanese  Hizbollah, he said.

But at least during that conflict you could normally predict where Israeli warplanes would strike, Oweiss added.

“The street will be empty here after 3:00pm,” he said.

Mazen Kerbaj, 31, said going out at night had become more an act of defiance than recreation. “It’s about proving to yourself that it’s still possible to live in this country,” said Kerbaj, a cartoonist.

One of his drawings was printed on the front page of a popular Lebanese daily on Tuesday, depicting a lone drinker clutching a bottle of beer. The caption read: “Me, Gemayzeh and my beer await the blast.”

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