TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Although a general sense of calm prevailed in Tripoli Saturday following fierce clashes that killed two people overnight, the lack of a definitive truce and a tangible government plan to end the crisis left the northern city almost deserted.
Clashes between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad killed 10 people and wounded more than 75 in the 17th round of fighting since the crisis in neighboring Syria began.
The deadly fighting entered its sixth day Saturday with little hope that the crisis would end soon despite measures taken by the country’s officials in a meeting headed by President Michel Sleiman Thursday to restore calm in the northern city.
Business owners failed to show up at the Abu Ali Roundabout to begin preparations for opening the weekly Sunday market, fearing a sudden recurrence of clashes and sniper fire.
Shops remained closed throughout Saturday and very few people were seen on the city streets. The Army has increased its deployment in the city and is visibly patrolling some neighborhoods.
In response to the renewed violence in Lebanon’s second largest city, civil society groups along with some residents gathered outside the Tripoli Serail and called on authorities "to impose security and stability ... and reject the notion of consensus security."
They also asked the judiciary to arrest and punish the perpetrators behind the August car bombings, criticizing ministers and MPs from Tripoli for failing to take any measures to end the violence.
Reading a statement prepared by the groups, one of the activists also warned that civil society groups would adopt measures such as civil disobedience if the state fails to shoulder its responsibility toward Tripoli.
Nehme Mahfoud, head of the Private Schools Teachers Association, who was at the protest, said residents of Tripoli are gradually losing faith and trust in security agencies.
"Do not let us reach the point when we stop trusting the Army and the security agencies," he said.
Mohammad Khalideyeh and Abu Baker Miqati were killed in the overnight fighting as the death toll from this round of violence rose to 10. Most of those killed were hit by sniper fire, including at least two children.
Several people were reportedly wounded Saturday by intermittent sniper fire.
The families of Khalideyeh and Miqati held burial ceremonies for their loved ones in separate mosques as armed relatives of the deceased fired in the air causing damage to two parked vehicles.
The Lebanese military clashed with gunmen in several areas Friday night. In one incident, the military came under fire during a burial ceremony near Ameraa Mosque in Bab al-Ramel around 11:30 p.m. when gunmen from the Abu Ratee Shatah group shot at a patrol.
The brief clash wounded civilians Issa Hawat and Mohammad Shatah.
Soldiers also traded fire with gunmen in al-Tall and al-Meytenn neighborhoods when the Army began pursuing armed individuals as per Military Prosecutor Judge Saqr Saqr’s judicial order to arrest security violators.
The Army also clashed for two hours with gunmen in the Abdel-Hamid Karami Square. The gunmen fled and scattered in nearby neighborhoods as the Army pursued the perpetrators throughout the night.
Six shops belonging to Alawites in Al-Nejmeh Square, a commercial area in Tripoli, were looted and set on fire last night.
"I live near Nejmeh Square and I couldn't sleep for a full hour last night," a business owner told The Daily Star.
"We are just fed up with this," the father of two said.
Clashes broke out between the Sunni anti-Assad neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and inhabitants of its rival area, the Alawite pro-Assad neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen, after residents of the latter fired gunshots in the air as they celebrated the appearance of the Syrian leader in a television interview Monday.
The fighting also comes weeks after the Internal Security Forces Information Branch arrested several people on charges of involvement in the Aug. 23 bombings outside two mosques in the city.
Two car bombs exploded outside Al-Taqwa and Al-Salam mosques where prominent sheikhs in Tripoli were delivering their Friday sermons, killing 47 people and wounding over 100.
The military court has charged seven in connection with the blasts, some of whom belong to the Jabal Mohsen-based Arab Democratic Party, a staunch ally of Assad.
Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri who enjoys strong support in Tripoli said Saturday the Syrian regime is waging a “dirty war” on Tripoli as a punishment for revealing what he said was the terrorist network behind the car bombings.
Hariri also held the state fully responsible for the volatile security situation in the northern city, saying the government should take all necessary measures to resolve the crisis “or it will be an accomplice in the war that the Syrian regime has launched.”
Earlier Saturday, Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati who hails from Tripoli, said security agencies and the Lebanese Army will take the necessary and needed measures to end the violence and chaos in the city.
Speaking to visitors Saturday at the Grand Serail, Mikati said: "The Army's leadership and the heads of the agencies have informed concerned officials that they will use all the powers given to them having exhausted all means to restore security and stability in the city."
"There is a feeling that Tripoli is being used as a mailbox to send messages ... but the honorable people of Tripoli ... know who has been on their side under all circumstances and who has shown up occasionally to support them,” Mikati said.
Meanwhile, Dar al-Fatwa in Tripoli convened a meeting headed by the city’s Mufti Sheikh Maled Al-Shaar at the Higher Islamic Council’s headquarters to discuss the deteriorating situation.
Shaar, who recently returned to Lebanon after spending almost a year in Paris for security reasons, said the clashes in Tripoli were not of a sectarian nature.
"The fighting is about a group loyal to foreign [powers] carrying out a foreign scheme to constantly attack the city," the mufti told reporters.
"We are still at a self-restraint stage not out of weakness but because we don't want to be dragged into a sectarian or confessional strife," he added.
He also called on the state, particularly the Army and security agencies, to resolve this situation once and for all.
"I ask in the name of the city to stop the attacks on Tripoli and I would like to salute the judiciary for its investigation [in the bombings]," he said.