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Lebanon's militias rearm before vote

Weeks ahead of presidential elections, black market weapons sales are soaring as factions prepare for street battles.

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It has been a good year for Abu Jamil, a Lebanese arms dealer.

"People are buying guns more than ever. They are expecting a war," says this portly, shaven-headed former militiaman as he shows friends a photograph of his newly purchased SUV on his mobile phone.

The deadline for Lebanon's presidential election is less than three weeks away and with no signs of consensus over a candidate among feuding political factions, many Lebanese fear a violent outcome.

The rising tensions come amid heightened speculation that Lebanon's political factions are arming themselves, resuscitating old militias from the 1975-90 civil war and building new ones in anticipation of street battles ahead.

Black-market arms sales have soared in the past year as worried Lebanese seek to protect themselves. The weapon of choice is the AK-47 assault rifle. A year ago, the most popular version of this classic weapon, the 1977-vintage "circle 11" (named after the markings stamped into the rifle's metal work) fetched around $500.

"It will cost you $900 now," says Mr. Jamil.

The vast majority of the weapons are traded inside Lebanon rather than smuggled or imported from abroad. Arms dealers buy and sell weapons to each other, regardless of political affiliations.

"We are all here to make money," Jamil says.

The rise in arms sales has led to an increase in shooting practice in the remoter tracts of the Lebanese mountains, where the distant crackle of rifle fire is now a common sound. Although rival political camps regularly trade accusations that the other side is arming and forming militias, little evidence has emerged of wide-scale paramilitary training. Most of the weapons training appears to be ad hoc, involving small groups of friends.

Hizbullah trains reserve force

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