Friday, October 4, 2013

Lebanon: US Department of States Advises Against All Travel

COMMENT: The Department of State urges US citizens to avoid all travel to Lebanon because of current safety and security concerns. 

US citizens living and working in Lebanon should understand that they accept risks in remaining and should carefully consider those risks. As of October 3, 2013, the Department has approved the return of non-emergency personnel to Embassy Beirut. This supersedes the Travel Warning issued on September 6, 2013.  

The potential in Lebanon for a spontaneous upsurge in violence remains. Lebanese government authorities are not able to guarantee protection for citizens or visitors to the country should violence erupt suddenly. Access to borders, airports, roads, and seaports can be interrupted with little or no warning. Public demonstrations occur frequently with little warning and have the potential to become violent. Family, neighborhood, or sectarian disputes often escalate quickly and can lead to gunfire or other violence with little or no warning. The ability of US government personnel to reach travelers or provide emergency services may be severely limited.  

The Fulbright and the English Language Fellow programs that provided grants to US scholars to live and work in Lebanon during the academic year remain suspended because of the security situation and the increased possibility of attacks against US citizens in Lebanon. 

A number of extremist groups operate in Lebanon, including some, such as Hizballah, that the US government has designated as terrorist organizations. US citizens have been the target of numerous terrorist attacks in Lebanon in the past, and the threat of anti-Western terrorist activity continues to exist in Lebanon. US citizens traveling or residing in Lebanon despite this Travel Warning should keep a low profile, assess their personal security, and vary times and routes for all required travel. US citizens also should pay close attention to their personal security at locations where Westerners generally are known to congregate, and should avoid demonstrations and large gatherings. 

Hizballah maintains a strong presence in parts of the southern suburbs of Beirut, portions of the Bekaa Valley, and areas in South Lebanon. The situation remains tense, and sporadic violence involving Hizballah or other extremist or criminal organizations remains a possibility in many areas of the country. The US Embassy advises US citizens that clashes between Lebanese authorities and criminal elements have also recently occurred in other areas of the Bekaa and border regions.  

The ongoing conflict in Syria has also resulted in numerous security incidents between the border regions between Lebanon and Syria and coincides with an increasing number of security incidents around the country. Over the past year there have been regular reports of shelling, originating from Syria, of Lebanese border areas and villages, some of which has resulted in deaths and injuries, as well as reports of armed groups originating from Syria who have kidnapped or attacked Lebanese citizens living in the border area. On February 1, 2013, gunmen on the outskirts of the village of Arsal killed two soldiers in a retaliatory shoot-out when the army was in pursuit of a wanted suspect. Two Lebanese nationals were killed and several were injured due to shelling in northern Lebanon February 23-24. The potential for border violence remains and the US Embassy advises US citizens to avoid the Lebanese-Syrian border region.  

US citizens in Lebanon should monitor ongoing political and security developments in Syria, as this may impact the security situation in Lebanon. On August 9, 2012 the Lebanese Internal Security Force (ISF) arrested former Lebanese Minister Michel Samaha on charges of having plotted, at the direction of Syrian regime officials, to destabilize Lebanon by setting explosions and planning to assassinate certain Lebanese officials living in Tripoli or the northern region of Akkar. On October 19, 2012, Wissam al-Hassan, Chief of the Information Branch of the ISF was assassinated in a car bombing in the Ashrafieh neighborhood of Beirut. Two other people died, and many others were injured in the blast. On August 15, 2013, a car bomb in the predominantly Shia neighborhood of Rouweis in Beirut’s southern suburbs killed at least 27 and injured over 200. On August 23, 2013, two car bombs that exploded outside of two Sunni mosques in Tripoli killed over 40 and injured more than 500. There have been increasing numbers of armed clashes with heightened sectarian tensions in the Tripoli neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, in areas of the Bekaa, and in Sidon. 

Hizballah and other para-military groups have at times detained US citizens or other foreigners for political motivations as well as for interrogation, sometimes for hours or longer. Kidnapping, whether for ransom or political motives, remains a problem in Lebanon. Suspects in kidnappings sometimes have been found to have ties to terrorist or criminal organizations. 

On August 16, 2012, the Maqdad clan in Lebanon kidnapped numerous Syrians and two Turkish nationals and claimed its actions were aimed at pressing for the release of one of their family members being held prisoner in Syria, allegedly by a group supporting the Syrian opposition. On August 9, 2013, two Turkish Airline pilots were kidnapped shortly after departing the Rafiq Hariri International Airport in Beirut. A group claiming responsibility for kidnapping the pilots said they would be released in exchange for nine Lebanese who were kidnapped in Syria in May 2012. 

Although the US government places the highest priority on the safe recovery of kidnapped US citizens, it is US policy not to pay ransom. 

Demonstrators sometimes block the primary road between downtown Beirut and Rafiq Hariri International Airport without warning. Access to the airport also may be cut off, sometimes for extended periods, if the security situation deteriorates. 

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is a body the United Nations and Lebanon created to investigate past political assassinations. On June 30, 2011, the STL delivered to Lebanon’s Prosecutor General an indictment containing arrest warrants for four Hizballah members who are still at large. The STL has announced January 2014 as the provisional start date for the trial. 

Beginning March 1, 2012 the United Nations renewed the STL’s mandate for a second three-year term. US citizens in Lebanon should monitor ongoing political developments, particularly in relation to the STL, as Lebanese political leaders have warned publicly that the Tribunal's findings could spark civil unrest. 

Rocket attacks from southern Lebanon into Israel have occurred in the past and remain a potential threat. These attacks frequently provoke a military response from Israel. The rocket attacks and responses occur with no warning. Skirmishes and tense exchanges between the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Israeli Defense Forces, as well as protesters and civilians, along Lebanon's southern border with Israel also may occur with no warning. On May 15, 2011, several demonstrators were killed and several, including a US citizen, were severely wounded near the southern Lebanese border town of Maroun ar-Ras after clashes with Israel resulted in open gunfire. Landmines and unexploded ordnance pose significant dangers throughout southern Lebanon, particularly south of the Litani River, as well as in areas of the country where fighting was intense during the civil war. More than 40 civilians have been killed and over 300 injured by unexploded ordnance remaining from the July-August 2006 Israel-Hizballah war. Travelers should watch for posted landmine warnings and strictly avoid all areas where landmines and unexploded ordnance may be present. 

Palestinian groups hostile to both the Lebanese government and the US operate largely autonomously inside refugee and military camps in different areas of the country. Intra-communal violence within the camps has resulted in violent incidents such as shootings and explosions. US citizens should avoid travel to Palestinian camps. Asbat al-Ansar, a terrorist group with alleged links to al-Qaeda, has targeted Lebanese, US and other foreign government interests. Although the group has been outlawed by the Lebanese government, it continues to maintain a presence in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp.  

Armed clashes, exchanges of gunfire, and incidents involving thrown grenades have all occurred, as recently as February 27, 2013, in the areas surrounding Tyre and Sidon. Similar incidents could occur again without warning. 

US citizens traveling or resident in Lebanon despite this Travel Warning should be aware that the US Embassy's ability to reach all areas of Lebanon is limited. The Embassy cannot guarantee that Embassy employees will be able to render assistance to US citizens in all areas of the country. 

In the event that the security climate in Lebanon and the region worsens, US citizens will be responsible for arranging their own travel out of Lebanon. US citizens should be aware that the embassy does not offer “protection” services to individuals who feel unsafe. US citizens with special medical or other needs should be aware of the risks of remaining given their condition, and should be prepared to seek treatment in Lebanon if they cannot arrange for travel out of the country. 

US government-facilitated evacuations, such as the evacuation that took place from Lebanon in 2006, occur only when no safe commercial alternatives exist. Evacuation assistance is provided on a cost-recovery basis, which means the traveler must reimburse the US Government for travel costs. The lack of a valid US passport may hinder US citizens' ability to depart the country and may slow the US Embassy's ability to provide assistance. US citizens in Lebanon should therefore ensure that they have proper and current documentation at all times. US Legal Permanent Residents should consult with the Department of Homeland Security before they depart the US to ensure they have proper documentation to re-enter.

The US Department of State considers the threat to US Government personnel in Beirut sufficiently serious to require them to live and work under strict security restrictions. The internal security policies of the US Embassy may be adjusted at any time and without advance notice. These practices limit, and may occasionally prevent, access by US Embassy officials to certain areas of the country. Because of security concerns, unofficial travel to Lebanon by US Government employees and their family members is discouraged and strictly limited and requires the Department of State’s prior approval.

For the full text of the travel warning, see:

http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_6065