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Syria-linked sectarian clashes rage in Tripoli, Lebanon

June 2, 2012 | 12:30 pm

BEIRUT -- Deadly sectarian street battles again engulfed Lebanon's northern coastal city of Tripoli on Saturday as supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad clashed in fierce gunfights in the country's latest Syria-linked unrest.

The heavy fighting, including cross-neighborhood machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenade attacks, revived fears that Syria’s increasingly bloody rebellion could be spilling into neighboring Lebanon, with its complex mix of rival sects and its own history of civil strife.

By the early evening, Lebanon's official National News Agency reported at least 10 people had been killed and more than two dozen wounded, marking Saturday’s battles as among the most deadly Syria-related fighting in Lebanon since the Syrian rebellion broke out more than a year ago.

Underlying the gun battles are bitter sectarian divisions between two rival neighborhoods — on one side is  Bab al-Tabbaneh, a largely Sunni Muslim area where anti-Assad sentiment is strong, and next door is Jabal Mohsen district, a pro-Assad stronghold. Jabal Mohsen is home to many adherents of the Shiite-offshoot Alawite sect, whose members also include Assad and much of his security leadership.

Gunfire broke out around midnight Friday and continued sporadically through the night, only to intensify on Saturday, authorities said.

The latest fighting in Tripoli has stoked further alarm over heightening sectarian tensions in this volatile Mediterranean country. Lebanon has close political and social links to Syria.

Among the victims reported Saturday were a mother and her son who died in sniper fire in Bab al-Tabbaneh.

The official Lebanese news agency reported that “rocket bombs” could be heard every 10 minutes on Saturday afternoon and that snipers were targeting civilians at two roundabouts and along the international highway. A police contingent sent in to deploy between the two rival districts "was pinned down" due to the heavy fighting and snipers, and unable to advance, said the news agency. 

The two neighborhoods have long-standing rivalries that date back to the Lebanese civil war and have fought on numerous occasions in the past. But tensions have risen considerably and clashes have intensified since the revolt broke out in Syria in March 2011.

In May, lethal street battles erupted between the neighborhoods, leaving 11 dead  and wounding more than 100, according to the Daily Star, a Beirut-based English-language daily.

Tripoli has a dominant Sunni population who generally support the revolt in Syria against the government of Assad. The major exception is Jabal Mohsen, the Alawite enclave involved in the latest fighting.

The fighting in Tripoli reflects how the conflict in Syria has jolted Lebanon's delicately balanced political-sectarian landscape.  Expressing support for Assad from Lebanon is the heavily armed Shiite movement Hezbollah, along with some other factions, while most Sunni movements want to see the Syrian president ousted. 

-- Alexandra Sandels and Patrick J. McDonnell

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