TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Tripoli is gearing up for an eventful Friday that will put to the test a security plan which the Army began implementing this week but was faced with widespread resistance Thursday after daylong skirmishes between the Army and angry gunmen.
The gunmen, some opening fire on Army patrols, protested troops’ raids across the city, saying the military was targeting the Sunni sect. The skirmishes that were still ongoing as The Daily Star went to press claimed the life of a soldier, Abdel-Karim Farhat, and wounded several others.
Some of Tripoli’s Islamist groups called on supporters to join demonstrations against the Army after Friday noon prayers. Until late Thursday night, political and religious contacts were underway to spare the city a major escalation.
The government Monday authorized the Army to take charge of security in Tripoli in a bid to end a new round of clashes between gunmen in Bab al-Tabbaneh, where the majority supports the uprising in Syria. and their rivals in mostly Alawite Jabal Mohsen.
Speaking to The Daily Star, a senior Army source said that the security situation in the city deteriorated after the Army arrested a prominent figure from Bab al-Tabbaneh.
“The Army will not retreat but there are fears of what might happen [Friday] because there are indicators that things are moving toward escalation in the city,” said the source, who requested to remain anonymous.
“If attacks against the army are politically motivated, it means we have entered a very difficult phase whose repercussions we cannot predict,” the source said.
He added that things would become clear in the coming hours, with either gunmen withdrawing from the streets or matters heading to escalation.
Otherwise, the source continued, Tripoli’s religious figures would attack the Army during Friday sermons, “and here lies the problem.”
In a statement, the Army called on Tripoli’s residents to cooperate with the security measures it had undertaken in order to preserve stability in the northern port city.
Protesters clashed with the Army as they tried to storm the Qibbeh barracks, prompting soldiers to disperse them and block all roads leading to the site.
Protesters also confronted the Army in other districts of the city and demonstrators marched in the old quarters of Tripoli and in Qibbeh in protest against what they called arrests targeting members of the Sunni sect. Several people were wounded in the clashes.
The city’s streets were totally deserted and schools and universities canceled Friday’s classes.
The Army had said in an earlier statement that protesters gathered near the Qibbeh headquarters in protest against the arrest of Abdel-Hamid Mohammad Awad.
The statement added that Awad beat a person Thursday morning and recently admonished a soldier.
Leading the group which tried to storm the Army barracks in Qibbeh was Shadi Mawlawi and his brother. Mawlawi was arrested in May 2012 by the General Security over charges of forming a terrorist group.
Those arrests also ignited deadly clashes between the neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh.
Tripoli-based Salafist Sheikh Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal released a statement late Thursday saying that the aim of the Army’s plan was to target the Sunni sect.
“We can clearly say that the goal is to deal a blow to Sunnis under the pretext of pursuing a wanted person here and there,” Shahhal said. “ Sunnis are not a scapegoats,” Shahhal added.
Gunmen in Bab al-Tabbaneh are demanding that Ali Eid, head of Jabal Mohsen’s Arab Democratic Party, be brought to justice.
Eid is suspected of smuggling out of Lebanon one of the alleged perpetrators of the car bomb attacks that targeted two mosques in Tripoli in August.
Shahhal called for a sit-in at the Grand Mansouri Mosque in Tripoli after Friday prayers in protest against the Army’s crackdown.
The skirmishes began when a Lebanese Army unit stepped in to rescue members of an Al-Jadeed television crew after they were assaulted by gunmen in Bab al-Tabbaneh.
The Army said the unit came under fire from gunmen positioned in the Sheikh building in the neighborhood, leaving five soldiers and two officers wounded.
The Army had earlier in the day continued to arrest more gunmen as part of its plan to restore order to the embattled northern city.