TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad fought gunbattles in Lebanon's second largest city which left four dead and wounded at least 45 in another alarming sign that the fragile country is being sucked into the Syrian crisis.
At least 10 Lebanese soldiers were among those wounded in the fighting that broke out Monday night in the port city of Tripoli. Security sources said four have been killed in the violence Tuesday, including a 13-year-old boy and three other men identified as Zakariya Omari, Ahmad Mahmoud and Imad Ismail who were gunned down.
Also, 20-year-old Sarah Hussein was killed when she was trying to flee the violence Monday and fell down an elevator shaft.
The First Intervention Force Regiment, an army unit comprising jeeps, trucks and armored personnel carriers was forced to retreat Tuesday afternoon after coming under a hail of machinegun fire and rocket-propelled grenade attacks after it had tried to intervene to subdue the violence, security sources told The Daily Star.
Clashes then intensified between the anti-Assad Sunni stronghold of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawite-dominated pro-Assad Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods after the army battalion's pullout. The army maintained a scarce presence in the vicinity, according to security sources.
The violence came less than a week after Lebanon was jolted by a wave of kidnappings of scores of Syrians and two Turkish nationals by the Meqdad clan and other groups in a bid to exchange them for 12 Lebanese held hostage by rebels in Syria. One Meqdad member was recently kidnapped by Syrian rebels in Damascus and 11 Lebanese pilgrims were abducted in May.
The kidnappings have brought back memories of the darkest days of Lebanon's 1975-90 Civil War and put the country on the brink of total chaos.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati commented on the ongoing fighting in his hometown Tuesday, accusing “several parties” of seeking to draw Lebanon into neighboring conflicts.
“We have long warned against slipping into the smoldering fire surrounding Lebanon but it is clear that there are several parties who seek to involve Lebanon in the conflict,” Mikati said in a statement.
“We call upon residents of Tripoli not to allow anyone to drag them into battles that only produce murder, devastation and destruction or to be used as ammunition for the battles of others,” he added.
Mikati also said he asked the Army and security forces to use all their capabilities to stop the clashes.
Lebanon's stability has been under the spotlight since Syria's 17-month-old uprising intensified at the start of this year, steadily raising tensions between the two deeply divided political camps of the pro-Assad March 8 and pro-opposition March 14 coalition.
Security sources told The Daily Star that a Lebanese Army battalion deployed in Bab al-Tabanneh around midday Tuesday and responded to the sources of fire.
But the battalion came under heavy machinegun and RPG fire, prompting it to pull out less than half an hour after deployment, the sources added.
A Lebanese Army communiqué said that five soldiers were wounded Monday evening when their positions and patrols came under fire.
Another five, including an officer, were injured Tuesday morning when a military outpost was targeted with a hand grenade, the Army said.
It added that Lebanese troops were in pursuit of the gunmen and had confiscated several machine guns, ammunition and hand grenades during house raids.
“We are living through a real battle,” Youssef al-Sheikh, a barber in Jabal Mohsen told The Daily Star by telephone.
“We are surrounded. No resident can leave Jabal Mohsen under the heavy clashes,” he said, pointing out that locals normally flee to Syria or the northern province of Akkar.
As with Sheikh's barbershop, other businesses in the heart of Jabal Mohsen remained open Tuesday, as battles were concentrated on the demarcation lines between the two neighborhoods.
Walid al-Ali, a 50-year-old who lives with his wife and disabled mother in Bab al-Tabbaneh said the streets and alleyways were full of gunmen.
“Two people were killed in front of me just now,” said Ali, his voice shaking as he spoke to The Daily Star by telephone.
“Many people have been fleeing to safer areas since early morning [Tuesday],” Ali ssaid, adding that while Bab al-Tabbaneh was not surrounded, he could not leave due his mother's health.
The security sources said that after a brief lull overnight, the fighting began again with sporadic gunfire at around 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, intensifying a few hours later with exchanges of machinegun fire and RPGs between the rival neighborhoods, breaking a fragile cease-fire enforced by the Army.