Syria’s sectarian splits creep into Lebanon

Rallying in the central square of this northern city, hundreds of men, many of them followers of the Salafi branch of Sunni Islam, have spent more than two weeks protesting the detention without charge of dozens of Sunnis in Lebanon and calling for the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Inspired, they say, by the largely Sunni uprising in Syria, the group has refused to leave the square, even after clashes with security forces last week ignited days of fighting between Sunnis and minority Alawites in Tripoli. Sectarian tension has worsened during 14 months of Syrian unrest as Syrian refugees and wounded fighters have flooded into the city.

“What happened in Syria — and in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen — let us smell the beautiful smell of freedom,” Omar Bakri Mohammed, a prominent Salafi leader, said Tuesday, surrounded by supporters in al-Nour Square. Criticizing the Lebanese government for closeness to Assad, he said that the sit-in would encourage authorities to “take us seriously for once in their lives,” darkly hinting that the protesters may in the future want to remove the Lebanese government entirely.

Violence in Syria showed no signs of ebbing Tuesday, as a bomb attack struck a convoy of vehicles in Idlib province that were part of a U.N. monitoring mission. No U.N. observers were hurt, but as many as 21 people were killed in the attack, according to activists.

Analysts attribute the surge in assertiveness among Tripoli’s Sunnis to a series of political shifts and security incidents that have left Lebanon’s Sunni society and political groupings marginalized. The Shiite political party and militia Hezbollah, meanwhile, has steadily increased its dominance over the country, which still bears the scars of a sectarian civil war that ended 20 years ago.

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