TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Fierce clashes raged between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli, killing three people including a Salafist sheikh and wounding 21 others, including a Canadian journalist and nine soldiers.
The fighting shattered a two-day-old shaky ceasefire and showed that the bloody crisis in nearby Syria was spreading to the volatile country.
Lebanese employee of Sky News Arabia, Hussein Nahle, and Canadian female journalist who was not immediately identified were wounded by sniper fire while covering the fighting, security sources said.
Nahle is reportedly in critical condition.
During fierce clashes overnight, anti-Assad Salafist Sheikh Khaled Baradie, 28, was gunned down by a sniper in the Bab al-Tabbaneh district, shattering a shaky two-day-old ceasefire.
Three people were killed and a total of 21 people were wounded Friday during the fighting, which saw the use of machinegun fire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar bombs through the night and into the morning, security sources said.
Earlier Friday, gunmen targeted a kiosk in Nour Square near the Tripoli Serail known to be equipped with surveillance cameras belonging to Lebanese Army Intelligence. The incident prompted the Army to increase its presence around the square, which is located in the heart of the city.
Masked gunmen were seen burning a number of shops around Tripoli as plumes of smoke disfigured the skyline of Lebanon's second largest city.
Residents hid in their homes fearing for their lives and leaving the city streets deserted as the heavy sound of gunfire and bombardment intensified, dimming hopes of a soon end to the violence.
The collapse of the ceasefire came hours after Prime Minister Najib Mikati said that the Lebanese Army had been given the “green light” to restore order to Tripoli after four days of clashes left at least 16 dead and over 120 wounded, including 11 soldiers.
Mikati, who chaired a meeting of political, religious and security officials Thursday at his Tripoli residence, told reporters that “things are moving in the right direction ... and the Lebanese Army has the necessary political cover from all parties.”
A statement released after the meeting, attended by Tripoli Mufti Sheikh Malek al-Shaar, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel and a number of lawmakers from the city, urged the Army to take all the necessary measures to put a stop to the violence and arrest militants.
The meeting’s attendees also encouraged judicial authorities to issue arrest warrants against violators, and asked the Higher Relief Committee to compensate residents for the loss of lives and property.
It was agreed that Shaar would launch an initiative in the near future to bring together all parties in the city and complete reconciliation efforts that started in 2009.
But gunfire could be heard near the area of Al-Mallouleh in the neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh a few hours after the meeting and sporadic sniper fire left Mohammad Sulteye dead in Jabal Mohsen late Thursday.
The tenuous calm had prevailed since Wednesday in Bab al-Tabbaneh district and Jabal Mohsen,
In a bid to resolve the crisis in the city, political and security officials met at Future Movement lawmaker Mohammad Kabbara’s residence Wednesday and orchestrated a truce agreed to by leaders from Jabal Mohsen that went into effect at 5:30 p.m.
Meanwhile Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn defended the Army’s performance, saying the military is doing its best given its minimal resources.
“The Tripoli problem between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen in particular is chronic and only needed a few issues for it to reignite, but the Army is trying to control the situation according to the available capabilities,” Ghosn told a local radio station.
The minister also warned that if the fighting continued, all of Lebanon would be affected.
Residents of the area returned to their neighborhoods Thursday, taking advantage of the precarious cease-fire to inspect the damage to their homes and businesses.
Hundreds of soldiers with tanks and military vehicles were deployed on Syria Street, which is the dividing line between the two districts and the front line when fighting erupts.
Lebanon’s Sunni communities largely oppose Syrian President Bashar Assad, while the Alawites back his regime. The port city of Tripoli and the capital Beirut have seen increasing violence since the Syrian conflict erupted 17 months ago.
Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt said Thursday, “It is time for the warring sides in Tripoli to realize that they have no effect whatsoever on the events in Syria.”
“What is the fault of the poor and innocent people in Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh? Why do they have to pay for bigger conflicts in which they have no stake?” he asked, calling on all parties to stop “funding and supporting violence” and instead to try to sort out their differences peacefully.
Jumblatt added that the only way to put an end to violence in Tripoli was through supporting the Lebanese Army in its efforts to clamp down against all forms of militancy in the city.