TRIPOLI, Lebanon: A tenuous lull set in late Friday in Tripoli after fierce clashes between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad killed five people including a Salafist sheikh, shattering a precarious cease-fire.
The renewed fighting, which also wounded 21, including a Canadian journalist and nine soldiers, prompted warnings from the United States and Great Britain that the bloody crisis in nearby Syria is spreading to Lebanon.
A Lebanese employee of Sky News Arabia, Hussein Nahle, and a Canadian journalist identified as Maura Delli were wounded by sniper fire while covering the fighting, security sources said. They were reported to be in stable condition.
During fierce clashes in the early hours of Friday, anti-Assad Salafist Sheikh Khaled Baradie, 28, was hit by a sniper in the Sunni-dominated Bab al-Tabbaneh district of the city.
In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon said that Assad regime officials should be held accountable for involvement in alleged attempts to destabilize Lebanon.
“We condemn the regime’s continued shelling of Lebanese territory and we call on the Assad regime to respect the sovereignty, independence, and stability of Lebanon,” said the statement by the embassy.
The embassy also voiced concern over the rapid escalation of clashes in Tripoli and called on all parties to exercise restraint and respect the stability of the country.
“We are very concerned by the continuing violence in Tripoli and express our sincere condolences for loss of life ... We call on all parties to exercise restraint and respect for Lebanese security and stability,” the statement added.
British Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher said Friday that the international community would support the Army’s efforts to restore stability in Lebanon’s northern city, but expressed concern that Syria was exporting its crisis to the country.
“I think we must all get behind the leadership of the state institutions in managing this problem and this means looking at fresh support for the army,” Fletcher told reporters after a meeting with Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
Fletcher said he discussed with Mikati the “collective effort between Lebanon’s leaders and the international community to restore calm and stability throughout the country.”
The envoy also vowed that the international community would do more to support the dialogue process, which Mikati is leading between the different groups in Tripoli.
Fletcher added that his country is considering “specific requests from the Army for greater international support,” including training that would aid the military in carrying out its duties in Tripoli and the surrounding areas.
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 also seen burning a number of shops around Tripoli as plumes of smoke rose above Lebanon’s second-largest city.
According to sources, the masked gunmen were members of local Salafist organizations who were out in force in Tripoli following the killing of Baradie.
Residents hid in their homes fearing for their lives and leaving the city streets deserted as the heavy sound of gunfire and bombardments intensified, dimming hopes of a speedy end to the violence.
Most stores and all the banks in the city closed Friday.
The collapse of the cease-fire came shortly after the killing of the sheikh.
The breakdown of law and order also came after Mikati said that the Army had been given a “green light” to restore order to Tripoli, following four days of fierce clashes that left at least 16 dead and 120 wounded, including 11 soldiers.
While hundreds of soldiers, equipped with tanks and military vehicles, were deployed between the Alawite-dominated Jabal Mohsen and Sunni-dominated Bab al-Tabbaneh, fighting continued with machine-gun fire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar bombs, sparking fires in several buildings, security sources said.
Former Future Movement MP Mustafa Alloush warned that even if a cease-fire was enforced, tensions would continue to simmer between the rival neighborhoods.
“Thursday’s meeting did not address the issue of withdrawing arms from the streets. The prime minister’s speech was very classical, and that doesn’t offer a radical solution to Tripoli’s crisis,” Alloush told The Daily Star.
Alloush also said that the crisis in Tripoli was strongly linked to the developments in Syria and it might end if the regime changed in Damascus. “Tripoli has always served as a ... scapegoat for the Syrian regime, that’s why the crisis won’t end unless the military [approach] or the regime changes,” said Alloush.
But Ali Fadda, politburo member of the pro-Assad Arab Democratic Party headed by Rifaat Eid, said that his party was trying to remain optimistic about the potential for a cease-fire.
“We are in contact with the Army and committed to its decisions,” he said.
However, the ADP official stressed that Eid’s group would not refrain from providing the necessary protection for the civilians of Jabal Mohsen if the state failed to do so.
“They burned shops belonging to Alawite civilians in Tripoli today, because they blame us for the killing of Baradie,” said Fadda. – With additional reporting by Jana El-Hassan