Partisans of the Christian Lebanese Forces party block the main Byblos-Beirut highway to protest the killing of a local politician in the Jbeil (Byblos) area, on April 8, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s interior minister vowed on Tuesday to get tough on Syrians after several were arrested on suspicion of involvement in killing a political official, in a case that triggered uproar.

Anti-Syrian sentiment has soared following the Sunday disappearance and death of Pascal Sleiman, a coordinator in the Byblos (Jbeil) area north of Beirut for the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party opposed to the Syrian government and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

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Sleiman was killed in what the Lebanese army said was a carjacking by Syrian gang members, who took his body to Syria.

His party said it would consider Sleiman’s death a “political assassination until proven otherwise”.

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Many Lebanese, including politicians, have long pushed for Syrians who have fled 13 years of civil war at home to return, blaming them for exacerbating Lebanon’s woes, including a crushing economic crisis that began in 2019.

Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi warned that “this country cannot withstand problems and sectarian strife”.

The security forces have been instructed “to strictly enforce Lebanese laws on Syrian refugees”, he told reporters after a meeting about Sleiman’s killing.

“We will become stricter in granting residency permits and dealing with those (Syrians) residing in Lebanon illegally,” Mawlawi added, urging people to stop renting apartments informally to Syrians.

He also called for “limiting the presence of Syrians” in the country, without saying how.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib called the number of Syrians a “problem”.

“We have 2.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a country of five million, and half a million Palestinians,” he told reporters after meeting his Greek counterpart in Athens.

The Lebanese army said it had received Sleiman’s body from Syrian authorities. The army had said on Monday that the car thieves had transported the body to Syria following the killing.

‘Sectarian strife’

Social media users also blamed Hezbollah, whose chief Hassan Nasrallah on Monday denied involvement.

Lebanese Forces said in a statement that Hezbollah, which wields considerable power in Lebanon, “has impeded the state’s role and its effectiveness, paving the way for weapons-bearing gangs” and “chaos”.

The powerful Shiite movement has been trading near daily cross-border fire with the Israeli military since the Israel-Hamas war broke out in October, raising tensions in Lebanon and sparking opposition from Lebanese Forces and other parties.

On Monday evening, hundreds of people blocked roads in Byblos, while footage circulated on social media of violence against Syrians.

Syrian refugee Abdullah, 21, who lives in Byblos, said the backlash had sparked fear in the vulnerable community.

“I hope that those responsible will be held to account, but not the entire (Syrian) population” in Lebanon, Abdullah said, declining to provide his surname for security reasons.

The United Nations refugee agency says more than 800,000 Syrian refugees are registered with the body in Lebanon, noting registrations have been suspended since 2015 following a government ruling.


Ramzi Kaiss from the US-based group Human Rights Watch said Beirut must ensure “the investigation into the killing is thorough and transparent in light of decades of impunity in Lebanon for politically sensitive killings”.

“Attempts to scapegoat the entire refugee population are deplorable” and “threaten to fuel already ongoing violence against Syrians in Lebanon,” Kaiss told AFP.

A Lebanese judicial official said security forces had arrested seven Syrians on suspicion of involvement in Sleiman’s killing.

“The kidnappers admitted that their goal was stealing the victim’s car,” the official said, requesting anonymity as they were not authorised to speak to the media.

According to the official, the suspects told investigators they hit Sleiman in the head and face with pistol butts then threw him into the boot of his car and drove him to neighbouring Syria. He died along the way.

A military official, also requesting anonymity, said Damascus had handed over three suspects, adding that Sleiman’s body was found in a lawless border area.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitor of the country’s civil war, said Sleiman’s body was dumped in a border area where Hezbollah holds sway, adding that he “was wrapped in a blanket and had been hit on the head and chest with a hard object”.