Tripoli residents feared further escalation of violence Wednesday as deadly clashes raged in the city for a third day Tuesday between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad, raising the death toll to at least 10 lives since hostilities erupted over the weekend.
Security sources identified Mohammad al-Rifi, a taxi driver, and Mohammad al-Asmar as two of Tuesday’s four fatalities.
More than 30 other people were wounded Tuesday as a result of the fighting between gunmen in the Jabal Mohsen neighborhood, where support for Assad is strong, and those in the Bab al-Tabbaneh district, which backs the Syrian uprising, the sources said.
Rifi was shot dead by gunfire as he drove his cab past Tripoli’s Mallouleh roundabout around midday, the sources said. They added that Asmar was killed by sniper fire.
In all, eight civilians and two soldiers have been killed and more than 70 others wounded since hostilities erupted Sunday, shortly after Syrian government troops, backed by elite fighters from Hezbollah, launched a major offensive in the rebel-held strategic city of Qusair near the border with Lebanon.
As night fell, fierce fighting resumed with rival gunmen in Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh exchanging machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
The Lebanese Army, already deployed in the area, responded to the sources of fire in an attempt to halt the clashes, the sources said.
A security source said that unless clear instructions were issued to the Lebanese Army and security forces to firmly intervene between the two rival factions, unprecedented clashes would erupt Tuesday night. Unlike previous days, the sources said, Tuesday’s clashes appeared to be escalating the long-running conflict between the two neighborhoods.
They said “new weapons,” unseen in previous clashes, were being used by fighters. Mortar attacks also featured more prominently in the fighting, with one shell falling near the city’s downtown area in the evening hours of the day.
There were also reports of increased confrontations between the Lebanese Army and Bab al-Tabbaneh fighters and two Army soldiers were killed Monday while troops attempted to restore calm in the city.
The Army has usually not been targeted in the conflict.
The sources said the patience of commanders in Jabal Mohsen was wearing thin, and it was possible the pro-Assad fighters could launch a large offensive against their rivals in Bab al-Tabbaneh soon.
In a possible sign that violence could soon escalate in Tripoli, Rifaat Eid, leader of Jabal Mohsen’s fighters and the head of the Arab Democratic Party, suggested his party would take action.
“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, the provoker is most to blame ... This is the last straw. You will hear the roar of Jabal Mohsen,” a post on Eid’s Facebook page said.
Eid Monday accused Bab al-Tabbaneh’s Salafist groups of instigating the recent clashes in the city.
Tuesday’s hostilities came shortly after the Army dispatched a commando unit to Bab al-Tabbaneh, beefing up the military’s presence there. The Army is also stationed in parts of Jabal Mohsen.
In the hours before the fresh fighting broke out, troops were seen patrolling major roads in Bab al-Tabbaneh, particularly Syria Street which separates the rival neighborhoods, all the way to Mallouleh roundabout and the main thoroughfare linking Tripoli with Akkar, further north.
Although the latest round of fighting has been linked to the raging battles in Qusair, Tripoli has been rocked by clashes between rival combatants in Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh for years.
Lebanon remains polarized over the conflict next door and local and international officials have repeatedly warned against a spillover effect from the uprising.
Civil organizations in Tripoli decided to stage a total shutdown in the city and declare Wednesday a mourning day for the civilians and soldiers killed in the fighting.
A statement issued after a meeting of representatives of civil society organizations held at the residence of the head of Tripoli’s municipality Nader al-Ghazal called on President Michel Sleiman to convene a meeting of the city’s security council Wednesday to take quick and radical measures to restore law and order.
The participants denounced the recurrent fighting which targets the security of Tripoli and the safety of its residents. They held the outgoing government and all political and security leaders responsible for what was happening in the city.
Meanwhile, Tripoli’s Future MP Mohammad Kabbara called on Sleiman and caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati to defend the city against what he said was Eid’s threat to shell Tripoli.
Speaking at a news conference following a meeting at his residence in Tripoli attended by Future MP Mouein Merehbi and representatives of Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya and Salafi Sheikhs Salem al-Rafei and Zakariya Masri, Kabbara said: “The president, the Army commander and chiefs of security agencies know that Assad’s party [Eid’s party] in Jabal Mohsen is the aggressor. Will they defend Tripoli and its residents? Or will they be content with pressure on the victims and be lenient with the killer?”