BY INSI

TRAVEL ADVISORY: Lebanon as at 09/09/13

As the US and its allies consider a military strike against Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb last month, foreign journalists are flocking to neighbouring Lebanon to cover the potential fallout.

Lebanon is historically a deeply divided country, and the Syrian conflict has added to the strain. Muslim sectarian tensions have manifested themselves in deadly clashes in Beirut and Tripoli over the past year. A recent spate of car bombings, one in a Hezbollah stronghold in southern Beirut and two outside Sunni mosques in Tripoli, has added to the fear that violence may be spilling over the Syrian border. Hezbollah is a close ally of the Syrian regime. Last week the media reported that an estimated 3,000 Syrian refugees were crossing into Lebanon every day, putting a strain on the country’s infrastructure and resources.

Journalists on the ground have dismissed some foreign media’s description of Lebanon as a ‘tinderbox’, and have instead reported feeling a gradual deterioration of security.

Britain and France warned their nationals not to travel to Lebanon, saying there may be an increased risk of “anti-Western sentiment” linked to the possibility of military action against Syria.

INSI is now offering the following advice for journalists travelling to Lebanon in the coming days.

Consider maintaining a low profile while working in Lebanon, particularly outside of Beirut.

INSI would recommend that non-Lebanese journalists use a reliable, well-connected local fixer if travelling outside of Beirut to contested areas where they do not have sound knowledge of the districts.

AT THE AIRPORT

Some airlines, including Air France, British Airways and Cyprus Airways, have adjusted their schedules to avoid night flights to Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport, citing the situation in Syria. Be aware that flights may be scheduled to change at short notice.

Only switch on your phone after leaving the airport as the airport building is where your phone and number can be most easily attributed to you and intercepted/monitored.

As of June 1 this year, anybody who wishes to use a mobile phone with a Lebanese sim card in it must register the handset prior to use. More information is available here.

There have been reports of heightened security at customs. Although camera equipment is rarely a problem, some journalists have reported having other equipment (i.e. satellite phones and body armour) confiscated and being fined for attempting to carry these through without proper accreditation. One journalist resident in Lebanon had her satellite phone confiscated when she left to go to Turkey, although was able to pick it up on her return.

Body armour and other equipment can be purchased in Beirut, but it is inadvisable to buy second hand body armour. Check the standards and the quality and only buy new and from reputable suppliers. It is advised to take your own so that you can vouch for the history of the plates.

See INSI’s advisory on body armour here.

THE AIRPORT ROAD

The road from Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport to central Beirut passes through Hezbollah controlled areas. There have been incidents in the past where the road has been blocked by burning tyres and people held up in the ensuing traffic jams.

There have been reports of kidnap and detention on this road recently, although they do not appear to be random and may well have been targeted.

Last month, two Turkish pilots were kidnapped less than a kilometre away from the airport, near a military checkpoint. A group calling itself Zuwwar al-Imam Ali al-Reda claimed responsibility for the abduction and said they would be freed in exchange for nine Lebanese hostages held in Syria.

Two Lebanese men were also recently detained for ten hours by unspecified abductors as they drove to pick their father up from the airport.

At the time of writing, there are a number of army and Hezbollah checkpoints along the airport road. There have been reports of gunfire at some of these checkpoints.

Read INSI’s advice for crossing checkpoints is here.

If you are travelling on the airport road, INSI would recommend that you travel during the day, and order a cab from a reputable company in advance or preferably use a trusted driver.

IN BEIRUT

The southern areas of Beirut are Hezbollah strongholds. INSI would recommend that journalists only travel in these areas if they have reliable safe passage with trusted people. Ensure that you have planned your story well, have conducted a robust risk assessment and are happy with your contingency planning.

Last month, a car bomb killed at least 18 people in Dahiyeh, a predominately Shia-Muslim suburb of south Beirut. A car bomb which injured at least 50 people went off in the Bir el-Abed area of southern Beirut in July.

Until now Beirut has been considered as relatively secure, however one journalist in Beirut told INSI that the recent car bombs appear to “have changed the rules of the game… whereas previously all sides involved in the Syrian conflict accepted Beirut was not fair game.”

“There’s a perception that there may well be another attack in Beirut,” the source added.

Local media has reported that the Internal Security Forces are receiving an average of 1000 reports of suspected car bombs a day. As a result, the ISF have asked drivers to leave their name and contact numbers on the windshields of cars so they can avoid breaking into them if they suspect a car bomb.

Bear this in mind if you are using a vehicle. Do not write on the note that you leave that you are media as this could lead to your vehicle being targeted. Only leave a local number.

In the event of a bomb, do not return to the area until the security forces have cleared the area, which may be hours. There is the possibility of being caught up in a secondary explosion – a tactic that targets first responders such as the emergency services and journalists.

ACCOMMODATION

The current perception from sources on the ground is that eastern areas of Beirut, which are predominantly Christian areas, are safer to stay in than in western areas of Beirut, which are predominantly Muslim areas, because of the possibility of sectarian conflict between Muslim groups. Ensure that your hotel has good security.

OUTSIDE OF BEIRUT

Hezbollah largely controls southern areas of Lebanon. In the event of a US airstrike on Syria, INSI would not advise travel to these areas, due to the possibility of reprisal attacks.

There have been reports of fighting in Lebanon’s second largest city Tripoli, where sectarian violence between Muslim groups has been reported.

Just weeks ago at least 42 died and more than 500 were injured in twin car bombings outside Sunni mosques in Tripoli. It was the deadliest attack in the country since the 1975 – 1990 civil war.

There have recently been reports of Improvised Explosive Devices in the Bekaa Valley. In July, one person was killed in a roadside bomb blast that targeted a Syria-bound Hezbollah convoy.

INSI advises all journalists to use an Arabic-speaking fixer with local knowledge if they have to travel to these areas.

CROSSING IN TO SYRIA

Journalists cannot legally cross the border between Lebanon and Syria without Syrian government accreditation.

INSI’s latest safety advisory for journalists planning to travel to Syria is available here.

 

 

Photo: Lebanese security officers look at a demonstration against a possible military strike in Syria, from inside their outpost near the U.S. Embassy in Awkar, east of Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. The U.S. State Department ordered all nonessential U.S. personnel Friday to leave Lebanon, reflecting fears that an American-led strike on neighboring Syria would unleash more bloodshed in this already fragile nation. The Syrian national flag is seen at right. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

Note: The views here are those of the author and are personal reflections and travel advice. They are meant to assist the media in preparing to work in Lebanon and are not meant to be negative in nature. If they cause offence to anyone, sincerest apologies are offered in advance. INSI holds no responsibility for any ensuing problems, bodily harm or death in relation to this advice.