TRIPOLI, Lebanon: A 10-year-old girl and at least one other person were killed in Tripoli Thursday, after fighting erupted between supporters and opponents of the Syrian government in a further sign that the political impasse has negatively impacted security in Lebanon’s second-largest city.
The clashes, which intensified Thursday night, erupted between supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the predominantly Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen and rivals in the mainly Sunni district in Bab al-Tabbaneh after Walid Barhoum, from Jabal Mohsen, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen on motorcycles. The incident occurred near Mazloum Hospital in the city at around 11:30 a.m.
Barhoum, a Sunni, was the son of an Alawite and also had an Alawite wife. He was a father of two and was said to have no political affiliations.
The Lebanese Army said in a statement that a patrol raided the houses of Omar Mikati and Fayez Othman in a Tripoli neighborhood on suspicion that they had opened fire on Barhoum. But the soldiers did not find the suspects the statement said, adding that army units will pursue the search.
As news spread that Barhoum had been sent to hospital, tensions rose in the city and gunmen exchanged sniper fire on the Sayde and Omari front lines. After news of his death was confirmed, the fighting spread to the traditional front lines between the two rival neighborhoods.
Fatima Ayyash, 10, was killed as a result of ongoing fighting in the city, security sources told The Daily Star. The violence also left 18 people wounded, two of whom were soldiers in the army.
The violence raised fears that the dreaded 20th round of violence since May 2008 in the city had begun.
The fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns as the army staged patrols along the notorious Syria Street that separates Jabal Mohsen from Bab al-Tabbaneh. The troops launched flares and responded to incoming fire.
Due to deteriorating security, schools were shut down and students were sent home, with Friday’s classes canceled as well.
A security source who asked to remain anonymous told The Daily Star the fighting was linked to the inability of Tammam Salam’s government to agree on a policy statement after weeks of deliberations.
The source said the violence was an explosive message from Sunni militants in Tripoli that they would escalate the situation as a reaction to what they described as Hezbollah’s blocking of consensus on a Cabinet policy statement.
The Cabinet met Thursday to discuss the policy statement impasse, but no final agreement was reached. The situation in Tripoli has been relatively calm since the formation of Salam’s Cabinet on Feb. 15.
Another security source voiced fears that the situation could escalate Friday, when the bodies of 60 Bab al-Tabbaneh residents who died fighting in Syria are due to be returned to Tripoli.A source from the Jabal Mohsen-based Arab Democratic Party, a staunch ally of Assad, said the battle was long overdue. “This should have happened after they assassinated Nawwasi,” he said, in reference to ADP official Abdel-Rahman Diab who was gunned down in Tripoli last month.
Militants from Bab al-Tabbaneh have been opening fire at unarmed residents of Jabal Mohsen in recent weeks. Tensions were further heightened in the city after two car bomb attacks hit two mosques in Tripoli last August, killing over 40 people. ADP officials were accused of the attack.
Gunmen were deployed near the Islamic Hospital to prevent the arrest of Omar Balah, better known as Abu Khattab, who is receiving treatment there after sustaining wounds from Thursday’s clashes. Balah is accused by the ADP of opening fire at Alawite civilians. Calls for retaliation on ADP-affiliated Facebook pages accompanied the clashes.