Three Lebanese were killed and at least 10 wounded Tuesday in fresh armed clashes between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Tripoli, further stoking tensions in the north of the country.
Intermittent sniping began in the morning between supporters of Assad in the neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen and rivals in Bab al-Tabbaneh, and the conflict developed into intense fighting in the afternoon and evening. The Lebanese Army responded by beefing up its presence and responding to sources of gunfire.
The renewed violence is the seventh round of fighting to erupt between the two neighborhoods since the uprising against Assad’s government began 20 months ago.
Tensions had already been running high in Lebanon’s second city since the weekend when news broke that a group of Salafist fighters from Tripoli who had gone to support rebels had been killed by the Syrian army near the Syrian town of Takl Kalakh.
Syrian state television broadcast images Sunday of more than five dead bodies shown with Lebanese IDs, reporting that the men were among 21 Lebanese Salafist fighters who fell into a Syrian Army ambush last Friday.
Conflicting reports on the exact number of dead and the circulation Tuesday of alleged photos and videos of mutilated bodies of the dead further exacerbated the situation.
Fighting in the Tripoli neighborhoods intensified in the afternoon, with gunmen exchanging rocket-propelled grenades. Mohammad Ibrahim from Jabal Mohsen, and Abdel-Rahman Nassouh and Khaled Mustafa from Bab al-Tabbaneh, were killed in the clashes. Sniper fire made the highway connecting Tripoli to Akkar inaccessible, and bullets reached the Zahrieh neighborhood, which is some distance from the fighting.
Rival gunmen built sandbag barriers on both sides of Syria Street, which separates the two neighborhoods, in an act that is repeated with every new wave of violence.
Schools, Lebanese University faculties and shops close to the scene of clashes closed earlier than usual and streets quickly emptied. Private and Public schools in Tripoli canceled Wednesday’s classes.
The Lebanese Army said in a statement that it would respond to sources of gunfire from any side.
“The Army Command warns the gunmen against going too far in tampering with the security and stability of the city, and stresses that it will strictly respond to sources of gunfire from any side,” the Army said.
The statement urged residents of Tripoli to fully cooperate with measures taken by the Army to preserve their security.
“The Army units responded to sources of gunfire with suitable weapons,” the Army said, adding that it erected checkpoints and continues to organize patrols, raid areas where there is gunfire and boost its presence in tense areas.
Speaking during a Cabinet session he chaired at the Grand Serail, Prime Minister Najib Mikati urged residents of Tripoli, his home city, to stay calm and be wary of rumors and attempts to stoke tension and spread violence elsewhere in the city.
“The Lebanese Army and Internal Security Forces have taken all the appropriate measures to restore security and prevent any attempt to spark strife in Tripoli,” he said.
Separately, Syria’s Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdel-Karim Ali said his country was considering handing over the bodies of Lebanese fighters killed in an ambush in Tal Kalakh. “Based on the request of Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour to help in retrieving the bodies of the fighters who died in Tal Kalakh … The government of my country is considering resolving this matter for humanitarian reasons,” Ali said in a statement. “We will later specify steps to be taken in cooperation with Minister Mansour.”
The National News Agency reported that five names of those killed had been revealed following discussions between Mikati and Mansour.
They are Malek Hajj Dib,23, Abdel-Karim Ibrahim, 18, Abdel-Rahman al-Hasan, 22, Youssef Abu Arida, 26 and Bilal Ghoul, 22.
Samar Qadi, the spokesperson of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Lebanon, said the committee was considering Mikati’s request to retrieve the men’s bodies and to ask about the other Lebanese. “We do not take part in negotiations to retrieve the bodies … if we were asked to retrieve the bodies and the conditions for us to do so are met, then we do it,” she told The Daily Star.
“These conditions are that all sides make the request and if the security situation permits [us] to do so,” she said.
Speaking during the Cabinet session, Mikati said the government would spare no effort to uncover the fate of Lebanese nationals.
“We reiterate our call for all the Lebanese to distance our country and ourselves from interfering in events in Syria so that we do not pay the price of a conflict that we cannot confront,” the prime minister said.
Mikati said Cabinet adheres to the policy of dissociating Lebanon from unrest in neighboring Syria to protect the country and it citizens from the repercussions of the conflict. The premier began a two-day-official visit to Italy Tuesday evening.
President Michel Sleiman followed up on the security situation in the north with relevant officials. He was briefed by Army Commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi on measures to control the security situation there and to prevent arms smuggling in order to preserve stability and civil peace.
For its part, the Future parliamentary bloc of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri said the Cabinet and Hezbollah were responsible for the “disaster” that happened in Tal Kalakh.
After its weekly meeting, the bloc said the government had ignored calls to deploy the Lebanese Army along borders with Syria to prevent arms smuggling and to prevent gunmen crossing from Lebanon and Syria and vice versa.
It added that Hezbollah’s “sending gunmen to fight alongside the Syrian army” has prompted some young men in Lebanon to join the rebels in Syria and defend the oppressed. The bloc urged young men in Lebanon not to fight alongside Syrian rebels, saying that they are not in need of fighters.