TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Sporadic armed clashes between opponents and supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad shook Tripoli’s fragile truce Wednesday, wounding eight people including a soldier despite a heavy Army presence in Lebanon’s second city.
Armed clashes broke out in the afternoon as a group of Bab al-Tabbaneh residents gathered in the Sheikh Omran quarter, chanting slogans in support of the Syrian uprising.
Sporadic shots could still be heard by Wednesday evening.
The Lebanese Army said in a statement that it raided a number of buildings from which gunfire emanated and arrested gunmen, denying media reports that troops have pulled out from Syria Street, which separates Bab al-Tabbaneh from Jabal Mohsen, a center of pro-Assad gunmen.
“Upon the exchange of gunfire with light arms by gunmen in Jabal Mohsen, Bab al-Tabbaneh and Qibbeh, Army units accurately responded against the sources of the gunfire, and it is still carrying out swift raids on buildings from which shooting takes place,” said an Army statement.
It said troops arrested several gunmen and confiscated arms and ammunition, adding that one soldier was lightly wounded during the clashes. The city saw three days of armed clashes between the pro-Assad neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen and the residents of Bab al-Tabbaneh, who back the Syrian uprising. The clashes were sparked Saturday by the arrest of Islamist Shadi Mawlawi by General Security personnel, after luring him to an office of Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi’s social welfare association.
Safadi objected to the way Mawlawi had been arrested and said he would file a lawsuit against General Security. Mawlawi was charged with maintaining links to a “terrorist group.”
Enraged by Mawlawi’s arrest, Islamists held a sit-in the city’s Nour Square and blocked the roads leading to it. But protesters opened the roads Wednesday after meeting with Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, who had a marathon day in Tripoli.
Speaking to protesters in the square, Charbel promised to personally oversee investigations into Mawlawi and said that he would be released if charges against him proved to be baseless.
For his part, President Michel Sleiman said General Security had carried out its duties by arresting Mawlawi and was not guilty of any “errors” in the operation.
Speaking while chairing a Cabinet session at Baabda Palace, Sleiman added that if General Security had erred in detaining Mawlawi, the matter would be addressed by disciplinary measures, and not by releasing him.
Addressing a news conference earlier Wednesday at Tripoli’s Serail after chairing a meeting of the North Lebanon Security Council, Charbel warned that “danger stalks Tripoli.”
“I said I am afraid that the security deterioration will spill over from Tripoli to Akkar and then to all parts of the country,” he said.
“Politicians are responsible for Tripoli, we consider it a city lying on a volcano and politicians are capable of extinguishing it [the volcano],” he said.
He said that a final solution could be reached if all groups in Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh sit down together with Lebanese officials.
Charbel also repeated his earlier stance that Al-Qaeda does not exist in Lebanon. “There is no Al-Qaeda organization based in Lebanon, but there are individuals who sympathize with Al-Qaeda,” he said.
Charbel also addressed another key demand of protesters in Tripoli by saying he was confident that the judicial system would speed up the process of holding trials for around 180 Islamist inmates.
The prisoners were arrested on charges of fighting or aiding fighters during the 2007 armed clashes between the Lebanese Army and the Palestinian militant group Fatah al-Islam in the northern refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared.
“An indictment will be issued soon and a number of detained Islamists will be released ... I can say that the courtroom [for the detainees] will be ready by September,” Charbel said.
Charbel added that the General Security officer who carried out Mawlawi’s arrest of was being subjected to investigations. “We will learn the truth within two days, but the results of investigations remain secret,” he said.
Rifaat Eid, the head of the Arab Democratic Party, which holds sway in Jabal Mohsen, accused the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch of publicly distributing ammunition to people in Tripoli. “Where did armed groups get 82-millimeter and 60-millimeter mortars?” he asked.
Eid described the cease-fire in Tripoli as a temporary halt, warning of a future worst-case scenario “when there will be no solution.”
“Let them all be aware of what is happening – if we go to the worst-case scenario, then no one will be able to restore calm in Lebanon except through the intervention of an Arab army,” he said.
“No one is capable of doing so except the Syrian army. If you ask me, I tell you I don’t mind, let it be today rather than tomorrow,” he added.
Separately, Speaker Nabih Berri expressed satisfaction over the measures taken by the Lebanese Army in the city.
MPs attending Berri’s weekly meeting with lawmakers at his residence in Ain al-Tineh quoted the speaker as saying that had it not been for the wisdom of Tripoli officials and their efforts to restore order, the situation would have further deteriorated and produced even worse consequences.
He urged all parties to facilitate the tasks of the military, which everyone unanimously agrees should be deployed to preserve security and stability in the capital of the north.
For his part, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt said the country had entered a stage that was more difficult than the one it witnessed following the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, praising the Army for efforts to restore security in Tripoli.
“As if these incidents indicate that the Cabinet’s dissociation policy has become [unacceptable] – they want the Cabinet to be biased toward Syrian policy,” Jumblatt told MTV.
The PSP leader said that General Security had dealt in a “stupid” manner with the Mawlawi case, alleging that General Security was now under the control of the Syrian regime. “[General Security] could have sent a judicial summons to Mawlawi rather than setting this trap for him,” he said.
For its part, the March 14 General Secretariat held Syria responsible for the Tripoli clashes. “The General Secretariat took note of the critical juncture that Tripoli [reached] in the past few days and affirmed that the basis of [the events] are an attempt by the Syrian regime to export its crisis to Lebanon,” the opposition grouping said in a statement following its weekly meeting.
But Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad denied that Syria was behind sparking armed clashes in Tripoli. “Whoever denies that Al-Qaeda carries out terrorist operations is actually supporting it,” Miqdad said.
Speaking to Al-Manar TV, Miqdad said that Syria was confronting attacks by terrorists crossing into the country from Lebanon, adding that his country had information about the support offered by Lebanese factions for the fighters.