BEIRUT/TRIPOLI, Lebanon: One man was killed and 15 wounded in one of the worst Syria-linked clashes in Beirut since the start of the uprising, as locals warned that sectarian fault lines could turn into battle zones reminiscent of Tripoli.
Meanwhile, the death toll in Tripoli rose over the weekend to 30 in 10 days of clashes linked to the Syrian uprising as three people, including a 12-year-old boy, were killed.
The clashes in Beirut erupted early Sunday after a personal dispute between a supporter of Bashar Assad’s regime and Salafists in the neighborhood of al-Gharbi near the Cité Sportive Stadium.
The dispute escalated into a full-fledged gunbattle pitting Islamists against fighters from the Hezbollah-backed Resistance Brigades.
Residents blamed rising sectarian incitement linked to the war in Syria for the deteriorating security, and said there was likely no solution until the crisis there is resolved.
The fighting began after a personal dispute between Raed al-Rayes, a local member of the pro-Assad Arab Movement Party, and Islamists, who said it was the latest in a string of provocations by Assad’s supporters. The Amal Movement has significant presence in the Shiite-majority neighborhood.
The Islamists say the Sunnis in Lebanon lack leadership to defend their interests, and used words like “mehwar” or “axis” to describe fault lines separating them from the Shiite-majority area in the neighborhood – words often used to describe the areas where Syria-linked fighting happens in Tripoli.
Islamist residents, most of whom asked not to be named, said they used only personal handguns in the fighting, and that they fought in self-defense. They said they were not directed by the Future Movement, but had fought spontaneously. But a local activist in the pro-Assad district said the clashes were part of a premeditated plan by Salafists.
The activist said that members of the Resistance Brigades, a Hezbollah-backed militia, took part in the fighting. He said that the Amal Movement and Hezbollah fighters stayed away to prevent a sectarian escalation.
“We have no interest in causing the situation to explode,” he said, describing the fighting as intense.
He speculated that the fighting could be intended to relieve Tripoli, which itself is reeling from Syria-linked violence over the last few days, and warned that the intention may be to spark repeated clashes like those in the north between the Sunni-majority neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawite-dominated Jabal Mohsen.
“There is sectarian incitement,” he said. “Let’s not hide things.”
“If there is no resolution in Syria, it will not calm down, and the axis [fighting] could become daily,” he added.
He acknowledged that the fighting in Syria and celebrations of Hezbollah’s victories there were contributing to tensions but said Hezbollah’s opponents celebrated rebel victories in Syria first and even took part in the fighting before the party intervened.
“The problem in Lebanon is people are loyal to their sect before their country,” he said.
By the late afternoon the Army soldiers and APCs were deployed on the outskirts of the warring neighborhoods and around Cité Sportive.
Bullet holes and blast markings from grenades pockmarked the ramshackle neighborhood, connected by narrow streets filled with mud puddles.
A lone bullet hole marked the spot where Khalil al-Hanash, a resident, was shot dead in the clashes. Locals say that Hanash was a bystander who was not taking part in the fighting, and that he was shot by sniper fire.
Some of the homes on the “front lines” had been burned down and left largely empty, reeking of ash.
“God will compensate us,” said Khalil Khalil, who owned one of the burned-down homes and accused the supporters of the Assad regime of being responsible.
Violence prevailed elsewhere in the country. Intermittent sniper fire and fierce overnight clashes between rival neighborhoods in embattled Tripoli dashed hopes Sunday for an end to the latest round of fighting that has claimed 30 lives so far.
Two people, including a 12-year-old boy, were killed and one person was wounded late Saturday, reportedly when a personal dispute escalated into armed clashes in Bab al-Tabbaneh. Another injured man died in hospital late Sunday.
The incident raised the death toll from 10 days of fighting to 30, the highest number of casualties from a single round of fighting since the uprising in Syria began in 2011.
Fighters from the predominantly Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh, which largely supports the armed Syrian opposition, have engaged in 20 rounds of clashes with their rivals in the Alawite Jabal Mohsen, which backs the Syrian regime.
Rumors circulated late Saturday that head of the pro-Assad Arab Democratic Party Ali Eid had died, prompting residents in Bab al-Tabbaneh to fire celebratory gunfire for at least an hour.
As news broke that Eid was still alive, Jabal Mohsen fighters fired shots into the air, triggering hourslong clashes in several neighborhoods in Tripoli.
In the early hours of the morning, people were seen taking cover from snipers while witnesses told The Daily Star that the Lebanese Army had scaled back its patrols.
Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said the government would implement a security and development plan for Tripoli and would enforce the arrest warrant against Eid, who is accused of playing a role in the twin car bombings that struck two mosques in the city last summer.
Meanwhile in the eastern town of Zahle, Maronite Bishop Semaan Atallah was the target of an attempted abduction over the weekend by a known group, a security source told The Daily Star.
The infamous gang suspected of plotting the abduction is headed by Mohammad Dorah Jaafar, the source said, adding that the brazen attempt was most likely motivated by a desire for ransom.
Atallah, head of the Baalbek Deir al-Ahmar dioceses, confirmed the incident and returned to the diocese in Baalbek to reassure the village’s residents as church bells tolled in Deir al-Ahmar in protest of the attempted kidnapping.
Also Sunday, the Army announced that two rockets from Syria landed in the town of Sarheen. No casualties were reported.