Lebanese army takes over security in city of Tripoli amid Syria war spillover

Move in Tripoli follows deadly sectarian clashes tied to the civil war in Syria as Lebanon tries to allay fears fighting is spreading out of control

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 December, 2013, 10:26pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 December, 2013, 4:49am

The government has authorised the army to take charge of security in Lebanon's second-largest city of Tripoli for six months following deadly sectarian clashes stemming from the civil war in neighbouring Syria.

Many fear that the violence in Tripoli - only 30 kilometres from the Syrian border - could tip the rest of Lebanon back toward chaos. At least 12 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in the latest fighting that broke out on Saturday.

The decision on Monday by caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati after a high-level security meeting at the presidential palace is meant to allay fears that the fighting was spreading out of control in the northern port city. But the army is weak and has been largely unable to stop the violence. Dozens of soldiers have been killed and wounded in Tripoli this year, often caught in the crossfire between rival gunmen.

Sectarian clashes linked to the war in Syria often flare in Tripoli between the supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Lebanon is divided into a patchwork of sects, including Sunnis, Shiites and Christians. Syria's rebels are dominated by their Sunni Muslim majority, and Lebanese Sunnis mostly support their brethren across the border, while Lebanese Shiites have staked their future with the Assad regime. The Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah has played a critical role in recent battlefield victories for forces loyal to Assad.

The fighting in Tripoli is concentrated between two impoverished, rival neighborhoods. The Bab Tabbaneh district is largely Sunni Muslim, as are most of the Syrian rebels fighting Assad's rule. Residents of Jabal Mohsen, a neighbourhood perched on a hill, are mostly from his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

But the violence in recent days has taken a more ominous turn, spreading to other parts of Tripoli as snipers took up positions on rooftops, and gunbattles and rocket fire raged.

On Monday, schools, universities and some businesses were mostly closed as occasional gunfire rang out.

Tripoli's landmark Abu Ali Square - which is usually packed with cars, pedestrians and shoppers - was largely deserted as ambulances took the casualties to hospitals.

Lebanese military armoured vehicles patrolled, sometimes helping carry terrified civilians to safe places.

On Sunday night, announcements were made through mosque loudspeakers for people to move to lower floors to avoid being hit by bullets or shells.

"I am worried about Tripoli," said Khaled Tutunji, who works at a construction material shop near Abu Ali Square.

"In the past, we did not know who is a Sunni and who is Alawite," he said as cracks of gunfire echoed from a distance.

Tensions soared in the city in August, following twin bombings outside Sunni mosques that killed 47 people and wounded scores more.

Authorities arrested several members of the pro-Assad Arab Democratic Party on suspicion they were involved and they summoned the group's leader, Ali Eid, for questioning. He has refused to go to the police intelligence office, saying he did not trust them to be impartial.

Since he refused to show up for questioning, attacks against Alawites intensified and more than a dozen members of the sect have been shot in the legs in Sunni neighborhoods. An unknown group named "Families of the (mosque) Victims" claimed responsibility for the shootings.

Following the security meeting that included President Michel Suleiman and army commander General Jean Kahwaji, Mikati said the army was to take charge of security for six months.

In Beirut, an official said 600 policemen will be sent to Tripoli to help improve security.