Deadly clashes erupted once again in Lebanon’s troubled northern city of Tripoli after simmering sectarian tensions boiled over into a melee of violence that has seen snipers fatally shoot people amid explosions and heavy gunfire.
Daybreak Friday brought no let-up to the intense fighting as casualties mounted through the day following the outburst of violence overnight between the Alawite-populated neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen and surrounding Sunni areas.
According to AFP, Thursday’s first casualty occurred in the neighboring Qobbeh area and as the fighting intensified a man was killed in the Sunni Bab al-Tebbaneh neighborhood, which has been involved in a series of sectarian clashes with Jabal Mohsen.
The Imam of Bab al-Tebbaneh’s Harba Mosque, Mazen Mohammad, told NOW that sniper fire erupted after residents of the Sunni neighborhood celebrated the release of Hassan Srour, a Lebanese man who had been detained in Syria for his participation in Novemeber’s Tal Kalakh clash.
“Sniper fire from Jabal Mohsen targeted Bab al-Tebbaneh and the clashes broke out immediately as the residents gathered to welcome Srour,” he said.
Lebanon’s state National News Agency reported that the army had opened fire overnight on gunmen in a slew of areas around the warring neighborhoods in an attempt to quell the violence, but shooting and explosions echoed across the city throughout the night, leaving suffering Tripoli residents without any respite.
Future official Mustafa Allouch told NOW that “the Lebanese army is not enforcing security as it should.”
Meanwhile, fellow party member Mouin Merhebi denounced the army, saying its Intelligence Branch was covering “groups set up in Tripoli by Hezbollah and their local allies who benefit from events.”
“Instead of enforcing its security responsibility, the Lebanese army releases perpetrators.”
However, Future MP Ahmad Fatfat laid blame for the clashes on Arab Democratic Party leader Rifaat Eid, who is the leader of Jabal Mohsen’s Alawite community.
“ADP with March 8 and [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad’s support intend to pressure the Lebanese government and the army in the events to further ignite strife,” he told NOW in an interview.
Eid refuted the allegations that his party was to blame for the clashes, telling NOW, “The problem is between the Lebanese army and Salafists.”
“[Salafists] can’t say that they [clashed with the army] so they said they are fighting us… and they started shooting at Jabal Mohsen,” he added.
Snipers continued to kill people Friday while rocket-propelled grenades (RGPs) slammed into civilian sites in the city.
“There are skirmishes and sniper fire, but the ones paying the price are the innocent, not the militia people,” Merhebi said.
Sources told NOW in the morning that four people had been killed, “most of them from the Bab al-Tebbaneh and Qobbeh area” and the death toll continued to mount.
The Lebanese army announced that one soldier was killed after being shot by a sniper, while a number of other soldiers had been injured in the clashes.
It added that its units “deployed inside the tense neighborhoods in the city, especially the Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhoods… and arrested a number of gunmen and seized a large quantity of weapons and ammunitions.”
Meanwhile, plumes of smoke rose over the city following local media reports that RPG attacks had targeted a gas station and an apartment building in Jabal Mohsen.
"The situation is very dangerous," Fatfat warned.
Eid said that he doesn’t know how the crisis will develop, saying, “We will see what happens on the ground, and then we will do whatever we have to.”
“We said that we will stop firing from our side, but on their side, till now, they didn’t stop."
The clashes follow a week of sectarian rancor and reciprocal threats in Tripoli.
Sheikh Mohammad told NOW that “there were harassments, trespassing, setting checkpoints, and skirmishes going on day-to-day but then they evolved in light of the statements inciting strife.”
The Sheikh as well as Future MPs Merhebi, Fatfat, and former MP Allouch pointed fingers at the statement made March 13 by Eid.
“Eid’s [speech] was not acceptable whatsoever. We are surprised by the language adopted by both Eid and Alawite [Mufti Sheikh Assad Assi] threatening civilians in Tripoli,” Merhebi said.
The ADP leader had made a threatening speech warning against attacking Jabal Mohsen’s community, while Assi on Thursday said, “We have to defend ourselves and retaliate [in case of an] attack.”
“[Eid’s] statements along with those of the Alawite Mufti are not acceptable,” Fatfat said.
Eid retorted to the accusations, saying, “It’s not the first time they blame me.”
Sheikh Mohammad detailed a series of events in the past week that led to the outburst of clashesm, saying that after a number of Bab al-Tebbaneh residents beat up a group of Jabal Mohsen inhabitants, the ADP “organized an attack, broke cars parked alongside the roads, set up checkpoints and beat up passersby” before the army intervened.
He added that Wednesday’s violence in a state hospital in Tripoli’s Qobbeh also helped incite violence, explaining that after a family from Jabal Mohsen took an ailing member to the facility, a quarrel broke out over the family’s insistence on carrying weapons with them.
Allouch said that the hospital incident could be considered “a clear assault” against Alawites.
"There are groups carrying out assaults [with the aim of inciting strife] and and Lebanese security services are not taking the necessary measures to stop them," he added.
Alawite Jabal Mohsen residents have frequently clashed with Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh locals. These recurrent disputes also reflect a split in Lebanon's political scene in which opposition parties back the revolt in Syria while the ruling coalition, led by Hezbollah, supports the Damascus regime.