TRIPOLI, Lebanon: The Army struggled to put an end to violence in Tripoli Tuesday as intermittent fighting persisted in the fourth day of clashes between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
One day after it was authorized by the government to take charge of Lebanon’s second city, the Army patrolled Tripoli’s streets and front lines, conducting raids and clashing with gunmen.
Soldiers set up checkpoints near Al-Taqwa Mosque and Nour Square. But no intensified Army presence could be seen in the city Tuesday morning. The Army did not appear to be present inside the neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh, and residents said they had not seen an increase in the number of soldiers.
Some residents of Tripoli said they did not believe the Army’s plan would bring security back to their city.
“Their presence won’t make a difference,” said the owner of a shop in Bab al-Tabbaneh, requesting to remain anonymous. He accused politicians of being beholden to foreign powers rather than loyal to the Lebanese state, adding that the Army did not have the political cover to restore security in Tripoli.
Many schools, universities and businesses remained shut Tuesday over fear fresh fighting could shatter the relative calm. But some schools announced that classes would be held Wednesday.
Clashes began Saturday between supporters of Assad in the predominantly Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen and rivals in the mainly Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood, leaving 13 dead and wounding scores more.
Sniper fire continued throughout the afternoon, with occasional shelling. Four people were wounded and sniper fire targeted the Mallouleh roundabout throughout the day.
The Army stormed Jabal Mohsen’s tallest building, from which snipers were opening fire, and erected a Lebanese flag. It also conducted raids in Sahat al-Amircan in Jabal Mohsen.
Troops clashed with gunmen in the Qibbeh Square and in Syria Street, which separates Bab al-Tabbaneh from Jabal Mohsen. Soldiers also exchanged fire with gunmen in Baqqar and Riva. The Army responded to all sources of fire. Troops came under fire when they raided hideouts in Souk al-Areed at the entrance to Tripoli’s old city and Mharram Project in Bab al-Ramel. Two soldiers were wounded during the raids.
The Army said it detained 21 people from the warring neighborhoods and that eight of them had been referred to the military prosecutor’s office.
Military prosecutor Judge Saqr Saqr charged eight detainees with forming armed groups to undermine the authority of the state, with waging battles between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, and with killing and attempting to kill civilians and Army personnel.
Similar charges were pressed against Abdel-Rahman Diab and Abdel-Karim Suleiman, local militia commanders that remain at large. All were referred to the first military investigative magistrate. They could face the death penalty if convicted.
Among the detainees is local militia commander Hatem Janzarli.
The Army also said it had arrested a suspect described as a “dangerous wanted man” after a raid in Bab al-Ramel.
The suspect was identified as Ahmad Abdel-Qader Shami, who the Army said pulled his gun at a soldier who was driving a military vehicle. The statement said the Army came under fire during the operation.
Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi said the military would be strict in dealing with gunmen in the city regardless of their political affiliation.
“The Army’s firm decision is to confront those tampering with security wherever they may be, regardless of the party they are affiliated to, away from political and party interests,” Kahwagi told a visiting delegation from the Committee of Muslim Scholars in Tripoli.
“Any security plan the military carries out will only aim at pursuing gunmen, those opening fire and those wanted as per judicial summons,” he added.
Kahwagi chaired a meeting at his office in Yarze with the heads of the country’s security agencies, and a number of measures were decided upon to restore stability to Tripoli.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri reiterated his call for an arms-free Tripoli, adding those allied with the Syrian regime were not interested in seeing calm restored to the city. “Tripoli belongs first and foremost to its people, from all sects and movements. It is not a proxy for miscalculated conflicts or an arena for political score-setting and regional aspirations. It will not be, under any circumstances, a hotbed for the Syrian regime and its allies in Lebanon,” Hariri said.
“It seems that the supporters of the Syrian regime in Lebanon don’t want Tripoli to rest,” he added.
Hariri’s Future parliamentary bloc called on the Army after its weekly meeting to assume its responsibilities in a fair and strict manner to put an end to fighting and illegitimate armed presence across the city.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said meanwhile that the Army enjoyed political support from all parties to accomplish its mission.
“I stress that the Army has full political cover from all political parties without exception and it is fully implementing its mission and enjoys support from all Lebanese sects,” he told a news conference at his residence in Tripoli.
“I reiterate that there is no political cover for anyone violating security and the Army has the required powers to deal with any security incident fairly in all areas, without imposing double standards,” Mikati added.
Mikati said the state would not be lenient in arresting all those with outstanding arrest warrants.
He added that he would not stop carrying out his caretaker duties.
“I have to fully assume my responsibilities in these difficult times,” Mikati said. Ashraf Rifi, the former head of the Internal Security Forces, had called on Mikati over the weekend to stop performing his duties in protest against the violence.
MP Alain Aoun, from Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform parliamentary bloc, said the government had failed to restore calm to Tripoli.
“This decision [to put Tripoli under the Army’s control] came after 18 rounds of battles in Tripoli and after it became a city outside the state’s authority,” Aoun said after attending his bloc’s meeting. He added that he hoped the Army’s decision did not come too late.
Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam hailed the recent Army measures in the northern city. “Handing over the city of Tripoli to the Army is a key step in ending the bloodbath and resolving the situation,” he said in a statement.