Syria-fuelled violence kills four in Lebanon's Tripoli

Lebanese army soldiers stand by a tank while monitoring a street in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, November 30, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

By Nazih Siddiq

TRIPOLI, Lebanon (Reuters) - Four people were killed by sniper fire the north Lebanese city of Tripoli on Sunday, security sources said, raising to 10 the death toll in two days of violence fuelled by sectarian tensions over Syria's civil war.

The clashes between Tripoli's Alawite minority, which supports Syria's Alawite President Bashar al-Assad, and majority Sunni Muslims who back the Syrian rebels, are the latest round of violence which has killed more than 100 people in the Mediterranean city this year.

Gun battles have broken out five times since March, killing dozens of people, and twin car bombs at Sunni Muslim mosques in Tripoli killed 42 people in August. The latest clashes were preceded by repeated attacks on Alawite targets over the last week in which several people were wounded.

Tripoli residents said the sounds of heavy gunfire and rocket explosions echoed across Lebanon's second city from midnight to 6 am.

The city was quieter during the day, they said, with soldiers patrolling otherwise empty streets of the rival neighbourhoods, but occasional bursts of gunfire continued.

Security sources said the dead were mainly from the Sunni Muslim Bab al-Tabbaneh district. Dozens of people have been wounded since the battle erupted on Saturday morning, including nine soldiers and several people from the Alawite neighbourhood of Jebel Mohsen, they said.

Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni Muslim from Tripoli, held talks with Interior Minister Marwan Charbel and other security officials on Saturday to discuss how to end the violence, which erupted despite the deployment of soldiers in both districts.

On Sunday he said they had decided to give the army full control over all security forces in the city to try to contain the violence. Soldiers raided several buildings used by snipers and other armed men, the army said, arresting eight people and seizing several weapons.

Around 150 relatives of the victims of the August car bombs protested in a Tripoli square, promising a campaign of civil disobedience until the suspects behind the attacks - which they blame on the Alawites - were held to account.

They called for electricity and water supplies to be cut off from Jebel Mohsen and vowed they would not back down on their demands.

The divisions in Tripoli, 20 miles (30 km) from the Syrian border, reflect the sectarian gulf across Lebanon over Syria's civil war. Sunni Muslims have crossed the border to fight alongside anti-Assad rebels, while Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah militia have helped Assad regain the military initiative.

But tensions in Tripoli have festered between the Sunni Muslim majority and small Alawite community since Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, when Alawite allied with Syrian troops to battle Sunni Islamist fighters in Tripoli.

"The story in Tripoli is complex and hard," Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told Hezbollah's Al-Manar television on Sunday. "The conflict is not new, or from the last couple of years. It is from the 80s and 90s."

"Those differences are still there - the people change but the thinking is the same."

Poverty and unemployment in the former industrial centre, which worsened as politicians focused post-war investment into the capital Beirut, has also made it easier for militias to win recruits in a conflict which Tripoli's Alawite minority see as a battle for their survival.

(Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Andrew Heavens and David Evans)