TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Lebanon Monday put Tripoli under the Army’s control for six months in an attempt to end recurrent sectarian fighting in the northern city linked to the war in Syria that has threatened civil peace in the country.
Shortly after the announcement was made by caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati following a high-level security meeting at Baabda Palace, the Army staged raids in and around Tripoli’s rival neighborhoods in search of gunmen’s hideouts and weapons.
Mikati said the Army had been empowered to take necessary security measures to maintain peace in Tripoli.
“We decided to commission the Lebanese Army to take all necessary measures to maintain security in Tripoli for six months and place the military forces as well as police under its command,” Mikati told reporters at Baabda Palace, adding that the decision was in line with Article 4 of the Defense Law.
The Army, he added, would carry out patrols and implement arrest warrants issued for fugitives and violators of security in the city.
The measure, which fell short of declaring the restive city a military zone, came as troops and security forces bolstered their presence in Tripoli, where 13 people have been killed and over 80 wounded in three days of clashes between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
A decree will soon be issued tasking the Army’s Military Council with determining the mechanism needed to implement the decision. The decree requires the signatures of Mikati, President Michel Sleiman and caretaker Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn.
The decision infuriated Tripoli-based Dai al-Islam al-Shahal, the founder of the Salafist Movement in north Lebanon, who vowed to thwart the security measure and accused Mikati of betraying his hometown.
“Mikati is selling Tripoli out with the decision to declare Tripoli a military zone under the Army’s command ... We can only see this decision as an attack on the Sunni community and its stronghold Tripoli,” Shahal told local media. “We will work on foiling this decision politically for the sake of Lebanon, its security and stability.”
Mikati later took to Twitter to deny having said that Tripoli would be turned into a “military zone.”
Mikati’s office said the caretaker premier had been misquoted earlier.
Turning a Lebanese area into a military zone requires a Cabinet decision and would also entail announcing a state of emergency.
However, the new security measures, due to be implemented starting Tuesday morning, failed to diminish the intensity of the violence.
An intermittent lull in fighting was shattered by nightfall as gunmen from the mainly Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood exchanged mortar fire, rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire with their rivals in the mostly Alawite Jabal Mohsen district.
A man identified as Haithem Tayebeh died of injuries related to the fighting Monday, while more than 20 people were wounded in the ongoing battles, security sources said.
Residents in Bab al-Tabbaneh support the anti-Assad uprising, while those in Jabal Mohsen, a neighborhood perched on a hill, are against the attempt to unseat fellow Alawite Assad.
Sniper fire kept the main highway that links Tripoli with Akkar paralyzed, security sources said.
Schools, universities, banks and other businesses were mostly shuttered in Tripoli, as empty streets rang with the occasional sounds of gunfire.
Lebanese troops, deployed in areas that separate the combatants in line with a previous security plan, responded to the sources of fire in a bid to halt the fighting.
Troops also conducted raids in search of wanted people and weapons. They arrested a man in Jabal Mohsen and seized an RPG, a medium machine-gun and a rifle from him.
The military said in a statement that Army units continued to boost their presence in Tripoli, especially in areas that have witnessed heavy fighting in the past three days, to restore peace to the city.
They also introduced heavier security measures included raiding gunmen’s hideouts, mounting patrols, setting up inspection checkpoints and eliminating newly built defensive earth mounds, the statement said. The raids resulted in confiscating light and medium arms, ammunition, military equipment, and a number of wireless communication devices, it said. All the confiscated items have been handed over to the relevant authorities.
Meanwhile, 120 members of a special police force were dispatched to Tripoli, and an additional 400 policemen arrived in the city to take part in restoring stability, security sources told The Daily Star.
Military Prosecutor Saqr Saqr ordered the arrest of eight suspects – seven from Bab al-Tabbaneh and one from Jabal Mohsen – over their involvement in the Tripoli fighting for charges including shooting, possession of weapons and attempted murder.
Saqr also asked Lebanese Army Intelligence and security forces to provide him with the full names of 60 other gunmen involved in the clashes.
In remarks published Monday, caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel urged politicians and officials to enable the Army to strike with an “iron fist” to end the Tripoli clashes, the fiercest in months.
Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt slammed Tripoli’s politicians for failing to act to halt the fighting.
“It seems that the majority of Tripoli’s leaders are determined to destroy the city. The proof is that they have failed to intervene as needed to change and reverse the situation by the lifting the [political] cover off all violators ... and seeking ways to dry up sources of funding to individuals and groups because this situation should not be allowed to continue,” Jumblatt said in his weekly article for the PSP’s online Al-Anbaa daily.
Mufti of Tripoli and the North Sheikh Malek al-Shaar also lashed out at the government for failing to deal seriously with the security deterioration in the country’s second-biggest city.
“The state is urged to be present and ready [to protect] its citizens,” Shaar told the Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen satellite channel. “The state needs to fulfill its duties to improve the security situation in Tripoli,” he added, stressing that the conflict in Tripoli was political, not sectarian.