TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Lebanese commandos, backed by helicopter gunships, seized the headquarters of an Islamist militant leader Monday, on the fourth day of clashes that have rocked Lebanon's second city, leaving 42 people dead and some 150 wounded.
A military source confirmed that the Abdullah bin Masoud Mosque, the stronghold of Shadi Mawlawi and his partner Osama Mansour, militant commanders reportedly linked to the Al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front, had fallen into the hands of the Lebanese Army.
The source told The Daily Star troops had combed the area around the mosque, which is inside the restive Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood.
Security sources told The Daily Star that soldiers found the mosque empty of militants. They believe the gunmen had melted away, their faces clean-shaven and dressed in civilian clothes, before the Army advance began early Monday morning.
They said that while the operation in Bab al-Tabbaneh was over, soldiers were still hunting for wanted men and other suspects in connection with attacks against the Army, after they fled into the orchards of the northern towns of Minyeh, Mhamra and Bhenin.
An army statement issued Monday evening confirmed the details of the operations, but added that one soldier was slightly wounded during a gunfight with militants in Bhenin.
By Monday evening, at least 162 gunmen had been arrested throughout the north since the fighting erupted, according to the Army statement.
Army helicopters continued to chase fugitive gunmen from Bhenin to the Oyoun al-Samak region, while Army surveillance aircraft flew over the towns and villages of Akkar, Minyeh and Dinnieh and Nahr al-Bared River.
The Lebanese Army called on gunmen to hand themselves in, or be hunted down.
In a statement, the military urged “remnants of fleeing armed groups” to surrender to the Lebanese Army.
It said the Army would hunt them down in their hideouts and vowed to continue pursuing them until they are arrested and brought to justice.
The sources said the Army was resolute in the crackdown on armed militants and was taking a no-compromise approach.
Security sources earlier told The Daily Star that the Army had sealed off all entrances to the vegetable market as troops prepared to storm the militants' stronghold in Bab al-Tabbaneh.
As the soldiers surrounded the Abdullah bin Masoud Mosque, troops fanned out through the surrounding neighborhood, combing the streets for militants, the sources said.
They said the early morning push followed the evacuation of citizens from the neighborhood.
The sources said among the fatalities were 23 gunmen, 11 soldiers and eight civilians.
Among the wounded were 92 soldiers, and 63 gunmen and civilians.
There was no resistance from gunmen when the Army advance began around 6:30 a.m.
Earlier Monday, unknown assailants tossed a hand grenade towards a police station in the Tripoli neighborhood of Mina. No casualties were reported. However, three cars were damaged in the 5 a.m. attack.
The four days of running street battles between Lebanese troops and militants in Tripoli and the northern district of Minyeh represented the worst bout of Syria-related violence in Lebanon since ISIS and the Nusra Front briefly overran the northeastern border town of Arsal in August, leaving dead 19 troops and dozens of militants.
The Nusra Front said it will postpone the execution of captive soldiers after guns fell silent in Tripoli.
On Sunday the jihadist groups threatened to kill Ali Bazzal, one of 27 Lebanese servicemen being held captive by the Islamist militants, after accusing the Lebanese Army of “cheating to gain time” and failing to meet its demand to end the offensive in Tripoli.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam, who pledged full political support for the Army in its battle against terrorism Sunday, chaired a security meeting Monday at the Grand Serail in Beirut with the heads of several security bodies.
Meanwhile, Education Minister Elias Bou Saab said Monday that public and private schools in Tripoli, Minyeh, and Akkar would remain closed on Tuesday. Measures to reopen the schools will be taken on Wednesday, he said.