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Death toll in Lebanon’s Tripoli rises amid sectarian clashes

Four people were killed and at least 16 wounded in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli during sectarian clashes on Monday linked to unrest in neighboring Syria, a security official told AFP.

He said three men died in the neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen, populated mainly by members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

The fourth person was killed near Bab al-Tebbaneh, a neighborhood that sits opposite Jabal Mohsen and is populated mainly by Sunni Muslims opposed to Assad's regime.

Automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade fire was preventing the Lebanese army's deployment in the two districts to halt the fighting, an AFP correspondent said.

Battles first erupted on Saturday between residents of the rival neighborhoods after security forces arrested Shadi al-Mawlawi, a Sunni Islamist, on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization.

Mawlawi's supporters say he was targeted because of his help for Syrian refugees fleeing to Lebanon.

Some 500 of them blocked a main road leading into Tripoli on Monday and said they would leave only if Mawlawi was released.

"We will stop when Shadi is freed," said Abdel Qader Hamid, a guard at a Salafi Mosque in Tripoli. "If the army tries to force us to leave, we will defend ourselves even if 100 of us have to die."

A total of seven people, including a soldier hit by sniper fire, have died in the port city and nearly 50 have been wounded since the fighting began.

The army said in a statement that two soldiers were wounded on Sunday night when their patrol came under attack by armed men as they were trying to reopen a freeway between the two neighborhoods.

The fighting has forced all businesses and shops in and around the area where the clashes are taking places to stay closed.

Many residents fled the area at the weekend and those who stayed behind were hiding in their homes.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni Muslim from Tripoli, met with religious leaders in the city on Sunday and appealed for calm. Meetings between the army, politicians and religious leaders were also held on Monday.

Since the outbreak of the revolt in Syria in March 2011, a spillover has been feared in Lebanon, where the government is dominated by a pro-Damascus coalition led by Hezbollah.

Tripoli is a conservative mainly Sunni town where many activists and opponents of the Syrian regime have sought refuge.

Syrian authorities have repeatedly charged that arms and fighters are being smuggled in from Lebanon to help the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad.

-AFP/NOW Lebanon

For the latest developments on Syria, follow @NOW_Syria on Twitter or click here.