x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Lebanese city’s Syrian war spillover intensifies

Najib Mikati, the Lebanese prime minister, authorises the army “to bring the situation under control, to prohibit any armed presence and to arrest those implicated”.

A Sunni fighter during clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian regime gunmen in Tripoli, Lebanon, on Friday.
A Sunni fighter during clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian regime gunmen in Tripoli, Lebanon, on Friday.

TRIPOLI, LEBANON // Supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime fought with grenades and guns in northern Lebanon yesterday after the killing of a local Salafi commander.

The shooting of Sheikh Khalid Al Baradei, who led a small militia, shattered the ceasefire between two neighbourhoods in Tripoli, where the conflict in Syria has reignited old tensions.

Two men were killed as the violence worsened between fighters from the Sunni Bab Al Tabbaneh neighbourhood and those from the hilltop, Alawite community of Jabal Mohsen.

That took the death toll over the past five days to 16.

Najib Mikati, the Lebanese prime minister, said yesterday that he had authorised the army "to bring the situation under control, to prohibit any armed presence and to arrest those implicated".

But militias in Bab Al Tabbaneh continued to stroll down Syria Street with their weapons in full view of Lebanese soldiers.

Normally keen to avoid such battles, the army fired .50-calibre machineguns mounted on armoured personnel carriers at Jabal Mohsen early yesterday, continuing throughout the morning.

Seven of the 12 people injured in yesterday's clashes were army soldiers, the National News Agency reported.

The fighting between the two impoverished neighbourhoods in Lebanon's second city serve as the clearest evidence that Syria's civil war is spilling over into the country.

The leaders of Bab Al Tabbaneh's militias met on Thursday evening and agreed to abide by a ceasefire that was supposed to begin a day earlier, as sporadic gunfire continued, broken by an explosion. Sunni commanders admitted the breaches were largely theirs.

On Syria Street in Bab Al Tabbaneh, just behind the front line between the two communities, Sunni fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and assault rifles ran to their fighting positions as the army looked on.

Abu Wadeer, a tattooed Sunni fighter toting a modified folding stock AK-47, said he would "take out" any Al Assad supporters while drawing his hand across his throat.

Abu Berra, a Salafi who oversees a militia of a few dozen men, said: "So many people have died in this battle, there is too much anger.Some still want to make a fight."

When Alawite snipers did retaliate, killing Sheikh Al Baradei, 28, in the early hours of yesterday morning, the fighting increased.

Tracer bullets and the flash of rocket-propelled grenades lit up the night sky. Thick black smoke rose above the neighbourhoods at daybreak.

Responding to Sheikh Al Baradei's death, masked gangs torched at least seven Alawite-owned shops in central Tripoli and a coffee stand.

Lebanese television stations broadcast footage of the burnt-out buildings. Young armed men on scooters could be seen driving through the city's streets last night.

The battle showed little sign of relenting yesterday afternoon and snipers made movement in the area dangerous, even with the tarpaulins strung between the streets to obscure enemy sights.

Two journalists with Sky News Arabia - Maria Moore, a Canadian and the Lebanese national Hussein Nahle - were caught in sniper fire on the Abu Ali roundabout which sits just outside the conflict-torn area. Moore was shot in the leg and Nahle was grazed by a bullet to his head.

While the divisions in Tripoli date back to the days of the civil war, the conflict in Syria has pressured its smaller neighbour's precarious fault lines.

Fears of a spillover were stoked by the kidnapping of a member of Lebanon's powerful Moqdad clan in Syria by rebel fighters, sparking mass kidnappings of Syrian nationals in Lebanon.