TRIPOLI, Lebanon: At least 14 people were killed in running battles between Lebanese troops and ISIS-inspired militants in north Lebanon Saturday as the military pursued a crackdown to rid the port city of Tripoli of jihadists plotting attacks in the country, security sources said.
Two civilians, three soldiers and at least six militants were killed and 20 people were wounded, including 10 soldiers, in fighting in Tripoli that erupted overnight, security sources said.
Two soldiers were killed in separate clashes with militants in the village of Mhamra, north of Tripoli, while five others escaped a kidnapping attempt in the area. Hours later, the Army said an officer was killed and two soldiers were wounded in the northern district of Minyeh when a rocket-propelled grenade struck their vehicle.
The Army said it arrested some militants and remained in pursuit of others.
The clashes in Tripoli, widely seen as a spillover of the crisis in neighboring Syria, were the worst in the mainly Sunni city for several months.
After fighting through the night and morning, a tenuous calm took hold of Tripoli after the Army agreed Saturday afternoon on a two-hour truce to allow citizens to evacuate their homes and transfer the wounded. The agreement came during a meeting with religious and local figures headed by North Lebanon Mufti Sheikh Malek al-Shaar.
While local religious figures have also took advantage of the break to enter the neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh to negotiate with the militants to withdraw, the Army said Saturday evening that militants retreated from several neighborhoods in the old souks.
A security source said that the Army arrested at least 25 militants who took part in the clashes, which began Friday evening when gunmen attacked an Army patrol unit in the souks. A militant commander was killed in the initial battle.
A 17-year-old Lebanese boy, a Syrian and a Lebanese photographer were among the wounded in the fighting, the most intense in the city since the government implemented a security plan last spring to end sporadic clashes between opponents and supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In a statement Saturday morning, the Lebanese Army confirmed eight soldiers had been wounded in the fighting, saying soldiers engaged in clashes with the gunmen after "armed groups were heavily deployed in Al-Zahiriyah Friday evening with the aim of destabilizing the town and inciting sectarian strife.”
By Saturday noon, the military was able to tighten the noose on militants holed up in the labyrinth-like old souks as soldiers launched raids in search for the gunmen, who reportedly have links to ISIS. A number of Army helicopters were seen flying over the souks as the soldiers, backed by armored vehicles, engaged the militants.
Video footage showed soldiers standing behind an armored vehicle as others ran from one position to the other, firing shots at the gunmen.
While Tripoli, just 30 kilometers from the border with Syria, has been beset by spillover from the neighboring civil war, the latest clashes are the first time that fighting has reached the old city. Previous Syria-related clashes have been largely confined to Alawite-majority Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh, whose residents support the Sunni rebels in Syria.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Tammam Salam said the government would not tolerate any attempts to turn back the clock in Tripoli and “will not allow a handful of terrorists to hold the residents of Tripoli hostage and sabotage their livelihood for goals that are not in the interest of Lebanon's unity or stability.”
While commending the loyalty of Tripoli residents and figures, Salam said the Army’s measures in the country enjoyed the “full backing of the political authority.”
Friday's attack on the Army was sparked by the arrest of an alleged ISIS commander, Ahmad Salim Mikati, during a raid Thursday in Dinnieh, north Lebanon, a security source told The Daily Star.
The Army said Saturday that soldiers raided Mikati's house in Tripoli and confiscated large quantity of explosives.
Soldiers also arrested a wanted terror suspect, identified as Rabih Shemali, during a raid on his house and seized a large quantity of arms, ammunition and medical supplies militants use to treat their wounded, according to the Army's statement.
Described as a high-value terror suspect, Mikati allegedly told interrogators that he had planned to kidnap more servicemen to exert pressure on the government to accept a swap deal with the militants holding 27 soldiers and policemen hostage.
Thursday's raid in Dinnieh is the latest in a series that security forces have carried out on suspected Sunni militants as a part of a nationwide crackdown after ISIS and the Nusra Front briefly took over the border town of Arsal in August.
The raids have further raised tensions in a country already rocked by spillover from the Syrian civil war, with some political and religious figures criticizing the Army for what they call discrimination against their sect. The criticism is largely driven by allegations that the security forces turn a blind eye to Hezbollah, which is fighting in Syria on the side of Assad, while cracking down on Sunni militants.