TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli witnessed the worst night of clashes since fighting between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad in the city erupted over the weekend, amid fears the Lebanese Army might withdraw from the area.
According to observers, the shelling, which tapered off at 7 a.m. Wednesday morning, was marked by heavy use of mortar bombs and rocket-propelled grenades.
In a one-hour period during the night, at least 47 mortar bombs rained on Lebanon’s second-largest city, forcing many residents to huddle in corners of their homes they felt could offer shelter.
Around 4:30 a.m., a 300-strong force of Salafist fighters from the mainly Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood, which backs the uprising in Syria, tried to launch an offensive against gunmen loyal to President Bashar Assad in the opposite area of Jabal Mohsen.
They were repelled by Lebanese soldiers, who opened fire with heavy machine guns.
A few mortar rounds shattered the relative morning lull as a cautious calm prevailed over Tripoli in the afternoon hours.
In all, 10 people, including two soldiers, have been killed and over 70 wounded since hostilities erupted Sunday, shortly after Syrian government troops backed by elite fighters from Hezbollah launched a major offensive in the rebel-held strategic city of Qusair near the border with Lebanon.
The big guns fell silent around 7 a.m. after fighters, exhausted from the long night of clashes, took a break. However, intermittent sniper fire could still be heard Wednesday morning.
“We are so exhausted. We decided to take a break until 11 or 12 noon [Wednesday],” one commander in Bab al-Tabanneh told The Daily Star.
Rifaat Eid, leader of Jabal Mohsen’s fighters and the head of the Arab Democratic Party, accused gunmen of Bab al-Tabbaneh of igniting the latest round of clashes.
“For the past three days, gunmen from Bab al-Tabbneh have been firing at the Army and attacking [military] positions along with non-stop sniper fire on the Jabal,” Eid said in remarks published Wednesday.
“We have relayed a message to them saying ‘enough is enough,” Eid added.
In a Facebook post Tuesday night, Eid said: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, the provoker is most to blame ... This is the last straw. You will hear the roar of Jabal Mohsen.”
Local sources said concerns were growing about the possible withdrawal of the Lebanese Army from the embattled area.
A security source predicted Tuesday that unless clear instructions were issued to the Lebanese Army and security forces to firmly intervene between the two rival factions, unprecedented clashes would erupt in the night.
Tripoli notables have been appealing for the Army not to withdraw out of fear that extremists could gain control of the port city.
Several shops along Syria Street, which divides the warring neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, were set ablaze during the night.
Schools and universities as well as banks and other businesses were closed for a third day Wednesday.
President Michel Sleiman followed up on events in Tripoli with officials and stressed the need to contain the situation and end the fighting there, a statement from Sleiman’s office said.
Sleiman’s held separate phone calls with caretaker Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn and Army chief Maj. Gen. Jean Kahwagi over the situation in Tripoli. He also met with caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel over the matter.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, for his part, said the Army had “full authority’ to take the necessary measures to end the clashes and arrest those involved in the violence, a statement from his office said.
He also urged political leaders and notables “to cooperate with the Army and Internal Security Forces to control the situation and lift cover from anyone involved in the battles.”
“[Politicians] should also keep Tripoli away from political disputes and refrain from using the city as a mailbox to send regional or local messages,” he added.