TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Army troops backed by tanks and armored vehicles fanned out in Tripoli’s warring neighborhoods Friday after a fragile truce halted four days of clashes that left 13 dead and scores wounded.
Despite the relative calm, gunmen exchanged fire in the early evening and two hand grenades were tossed at Syria Street, which separates Jabal Mohsen, whose residents support Assad, from Bab al-Tabbaneh, where anti-Syrian regime sentiment runs high.
Thursday night witnessed the fiercest clashes and explosions could be heard throughout Tripoli.
This round of violence erupted Monday after news broke that a group of Lebanese Salafist fighters from Tripoli and its environs were ambushed by Syrian soldiers in Syria’s Tal Kalakh.
Most shops opened in Tripoli and traffic was almost back to normal Friday, but schools and universities remained closed. But the relative calm does not necessarily mean the violence is over, as there have been several waves of violence since the outbreak of Syria’s uprising over 20 months ago.
Some have expressed concern that the truce will collapse once the bodies of the dead Salafist fighters are returned to Lebanon.
Syria’s Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdel-Karim Ali said earlier in the week that his country will start handing the bodies to Lebanese authorities Saturday, in three rounds over one week.
But a security source who requested to remain anonymous told The Daily Star Friday it is unlikely that the transfer will take place as announced.
“I think it is unlikely that bodies will be repatriated tomorrow; contacts are under way to reach a mechanism to receive the bodies,” the source said.
In a statement Friday, the Army called on residents of Tripoli to report any suspicious activity in tense areas.
“Out of its desire to save lives, and to stop those who tamper with security by opening fire intermittently and hiding in residential areas from using people as human shields, the Army command calls on residents of tense areas to fully cooperate with the Army and immediately inform it about any armed or suspicious activity,” it said.
The Army said it is continuing its measures to restore security in Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen and had arrested several people Thursday on suspicion of opening fire, confiscating weapons and ammunition.
The statement said that seven soldiers suffered minor wounds from sniper fire Thursday.
Meanwhile, gunmen in Bab al-Tabbaneh unified under a Salafist fighter wanted by Lebanese authorities. A late night meeting of various groups in Bab Al-Tabbaneh Thursday agreed to appoint Hussam Sabbagh, an Al-Qaeda-inspired fighter, as their commander to lead the fight against Jabal Mohsen gunmen, sources among the groups said.
Lebanese authorities have several arrest warrants out on Sabbagh for the prominent role he played in clashes between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese Army at the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared, north of Tripoli, in 2007.
The sources said the groups, which met at Bab al-Tabbaneh’s Harba Mosque, unanimously picked Sabbagh to head the new leadership.
As the Army spread out across the city, politicians stepped up efforts to contain the situation. Prime Minister Najib Mikati returned to Beirut Thursday evening from an official visit to Italy, canceling a scheduled visit to Nice, France.
Mikati telephoned President Michel Sleiman, who is on an official visit to Greece, to discuss the Tripoli violence and upon their agreement, the Higher Defense Council will convene Sunday at Baabda Palace.
Mikati was also briefed by Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi on measures the Army has taken in Tripoli. He met with Internal Security Forces head Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, and later with both Rifi and Interior Minister Marwan Charbel.
Charbel will head to Tripoli Saturday to chair a security meeting.
Mikati called on leaders to cooperate to preserve civil peace.
“The government will continue to take all measures needed to preserve civil peace ... but this national mission requires, given the current circumstances, the cooperation of all Lebanese leaders that should rise above ... narrow interests ... and stop protecting trouble makers,” Mikati said.
“I call on my people in Tripoli to resort to wisdom, conscience and national responsibility amid these difficult circumstances. I call on them to prevent the enemies of Lebanon from achieving their goals and to cooperate with the Army and Internal Security Forces to ... restore security.”
During a meeting at the Grand Serail, Mikati tasked Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the head of General Security, with following up on the process of retrieving the bodies of the Islamists killed in Syria in one rather than three batches.
Separately, many of the country’s leaders telephoned Sheikh Malek Shaar, the mufti of Tripoli and the North, who said earlier this week that he would remain in Paris after attending an event in Vienna event because of information that he was the target of an assassination plot. Sleiman spoke to Shaar about the security threats that are keeping him away from Lebanon.
Speaker Nabih Berri telephoned Shaar, urging him to return to Lebanon but take security precautions. Berri said Shaar’s presence would help restore calm to Tripoli.
Mikati urged Shaar to return to Tripoli and assured that security bodies would protect him. Former premiers Saad Hariri and Fouad Siniora also contacted Shaar.
Shaar said that Charbel Thursday urged him to stay out of Lebanon until security bodies can ensure his safety.
Tripoli’s municipal council will hold a news conference Saturday at Dar al-Fatwa to condemn threats against Shaar and the deteriorating security situation.
The council will call on civil society groups and residents of Tripoli to hold a sit-in near Tripoli’s governmental Serail Monday to urge the government to act decisively to put an end to the successive waves of violence hitting the city.