TRIPOLI, Lebanon: The Lebanese Army has been tasked with implementing a security plan starting Monday to restore law and order in Tripoli, which has been rattled by fighting between pro- and anti-Assad groups that has killed at least 17 people.
“The Army is set to begin carrying out a security plan in Tripoli from Monday,” a security source told The Daily Star.
Syria Sunday handed over the bodies of three Lebanese Islamist fighters killed in an ambush by Syrian troops, as clashes between rival gunmen in Tripoli intensified, raising fears of a wider military confrontation.
Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri called on military and security forces to take action “to halt the security deterioration in Tripoli, impose the state authority and put a final end to the cycle of violence to which some parties are taking the city.”
Speaking by telephone with Army Commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi and Internal Security Forces chief Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, Hariri also demanded that all extraordinary measures be taken to pursue those trying to undermine security and sectarian coexistence in Tripoli, according to a statement released by his media office.
The head of the Future Movement urged Tripoli’s residents to close ranks in order to foil “suspicious schemes,” which he said are known to everyone, especially officials in the state.
“The state is aware of operations to arm parties charged with organizing a security deterioration every now and then,” Hariri said. He called on Tripoli’s residents and notables to show self-restraint and cooperate with the authorities to face plots against their city.
Although rival gunmen fought intermittently during the day, clashes intensified Sunday night, engulfing all fronts between the neighborhoods of Jabal Mohsen, whose residents support Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Bab al-Tabbaneh, which backs the anti-regime uprising, security sources said.
Security reports also spoke about the kidnapping of two Alawite residents from Jabal Mohsen, in an incident likely to increase tension.
In a bid to defuse the situation in Tripoli, Lebanon’s Higher Defense Council took measures to beef up security in the city, which has been rocked by several rounds of sectarian violence in past months linked to political divisions over the 20-month-old bloody conflict in neighboring Syria.
“The Army was empowered to take measures to consolidate security in Tripoli and prevent renewal of fighting,” Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, who attended the council’s meeting, told The Daily Star.
Charbel declined to give further details, saying the council’s decisions are usually not made public. In a statement released after the meeting, chaired by President Michel Sleiman at the Baabda Palace, the council said it had discussed the security situation in the country in general, and Tripoli and its environs in particular.
“The council was briefed by the Army commander on the measures taken by the Army troops to control the security situation and restore calm to the city and its surroundings,” the statement said.
“For this purpose, the council has issued necessary instructions to the Army and distributed tasks to the ministries and the relevant [security] departments and agencies,” the statement said. It added that the council kept its decisions shrouded in secrecy according to law.
The council’s meeting was attended by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, the ministers of defense, interior, finance, economy and the acting foreign minister, in addition to senior Army and security officials, including Kahwagi.
Mikati called on all the parties in Tripoli to cooperate with the Army and Internal Security Forces in order to halt the bloodshed and protect the city against strife.
“My serious work is continuing toward ensuring stability in Tripoli and all of Lebanon,” Mikati said on Twitter. He added that measures would be taken in the next few hours to consolidate security in Tripoli.
Earlier Sunday, Syrian security officials handed over the bodies of the three slain Lebanese fighters to a Lebanese delegation that included representatives from Dar al-Fatwa as well as General Security in the presence of three Lebanese Red Cross ambulances on the Arida border crossing in the north. The ambulances transferred the bodies of the men to their relatives for burial.
Carried by mourners, the coffins arrived to their respective homes as shots were fired in the air to welcome the caskets, on each of which a small piece of paper was taped with the deceased’s name.
The men whose bodies were repatriated were initially identified as Malek Ziyad Hajj-Dib, Khodr Mustafa Alameddine and Abdel-Hamid Ali al-Agha, but Hajj-Dib’s body turned out to be that of Mohammad al-Mir.
Agha was buried in his hometown of Dinnieh, while Alameddine was buried in Minieh.
Mir’s family did not expect the return of their 17-year-old son’s body, and his father became highly emotional as the coffin made its way through the crowd into his home in Tripoli. “You are a very big loss ... you died so early,” Abu Abdallah al-Mir, Mir’s father, shouted, as tears streamed down his face and women wept.
A group of Islamist fighters from Tripoli were killed in a Syrian army ambush in the town of Tal Kalakh near the border with Lebanon on Nov. 31, but there have been conflicting reports on the exact number of men who were killed.
Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour was informed in a letter Saturday that three of the slain fighters would be returned to Lebanon Sunday and given their names. The letter added that the remaining bodies of Lebanese fighters would be returned in several stages for “logistical reasons.”
The handover is expected to ease tensions in the north, although clashes were renewed between Assad’s opponents and supporters in Tripoli.
Two soldiers and a local resident were wounded when a hand grenade landed near an Army post in Tripoli, the military said in a statement.
Residents of Tripoli reported Sunday heavy fighting overnight that forced many to flee, as the streets in Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen were deserted. Seventeen people have been killed, mostly by sniper fire, and at least 77 have been wounded since the clashes erupted last week after news that some 21 Lebanese fighters from the city were killed in Syria.
A rocket-propelled grenade hit a school between Jabal Mohsen and Al-Qibbeh, causing material damage.
No causalities were reported.
Many residents of the city fled their homes and hid in shelters after a message spread via social media said Tripoli would face heavy shelling Sunday night.
But sources in the Arab Democratic Party told The Daily Star that they are only defending themselves, denying that it would shell Tripoli.
“When we are hit, we respond. We are only defending ourselves,” said a source inside the party, led by Rifaat Eid.
Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Beshara Rai urged Tripoli residents to end the violence, asking security forces to intervene to restore law and order in the city.
“I urge the residents of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen to stop this cycle of fighting, sniping and killing in order to reach reconciliation and understanding,” Rai said during his Sunday sermon in Bkirki.
“We look to the Army and security agencies to restore security and stability,” he added.
Rai also said that Tripoli figures and civil society groups should act as negotiators and save the city which the patriarch described as “a historical center of coexistence.”