TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Sporadic exchanges of gunfire persisted in Lebanon’s second-largest city Wednesday night despite a cease-fire agreement between rival groups to end three days of fierce clashes that killed at least 12 people.
A senior security source, however, said the cease-fire was precarious at best despite the deployment of Lebanese Army units in the battle zone and expressed fears that fighting between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Tripoli was likely to resume in the next few hours.
Meanwhile, a senior United Nations official warned that the fighting was a sign that the Syrian crisis was spilling over into Lebanon.
“As the crisis in Syria continues to deteriorate, the situation in Lebanon has become more precarious and the need for continued international support for the government and the Lebanese Armed Forces increasingly important,” U.N. Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said in New York.
“Tensions over domestic and security concerns remain high throughout the country and are easily exacerbated by developments in Syria,” added the former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon.
Meanwhile, the senior security source said there was still no political consensus for fighting to end in Tripoli. “Tonight the fighters are resting.”
The security source added that the Bab al-Tabbaneh fighters had run out of ammunition and were waiting to replenish their stock before engaging in a new round of clashes.
Also, according to the source, some anti-Syrian President Bashar Assad groups in Bab al-Tabbaneh have not agreed to the cease-fire, dimming hopes of a possible conclusive end to the fighting.
In a bid to resolve the crisis in the city, political and security officials met at Future Movement lawmaker Mohammad Kabbara’s residence and agreed to a cease-fire that went into effect at 5:30 p.m.
Kabbara announced that Prime Minister Najib Mikati had expressed his readiness to visit Tripoli, along with Interior Minister Marwan Charbel and Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn to oversee the implementation of the cease-fire.
The officials also called on the Lebanese Army to deploy in all conflict zones.
Mikati, who held talks with President Michel Sleiman over the situation in Tripoli, called on the Army and the security forces to “be strict in controlling the [security] situation, prevent [clashes] and arrest those challenging the security [of Tripoli],” he was quoted as saying by the state-run National News Agency.
Army units entered Syria Street, which separates the rival districts.
However, the security source denied that the Army had carried out a “wide-ranging” deployment as it still lacked the necessary political cover since it had been given orders to deploy rather than intervene to end the conflict. “The military has dispatched only five vehicles to Bab al-Tabbaneh that are carrying out ... patrols along Syria Street,” the source added.
The three-day clashes had intensified earlier Wednesday between gunmen in the anti-Assad Sunni stronghold of Bab al-Tabbaneh and others in the Alawite-dominated pro-Assad Jabal Mohsen district, killing 12 people, including a soldier, and wounding over 76. Among the wounded are 11 soldiers and a policeman.
Meanwhile, the Army called on political leaders “not to intervene on the ground” or contribute to the conflict by instigating disputes, asking them to behave responsibly during this difficult phase.
In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, the Army also denied that it had withdrawn from conflict zones, saying it continued to adhere to a comprehensive military plan. It expressed readiness to engage in dialogue with rival field commanders in the city “to bury sedition and defuse tensions,” and expose those undermining security.
Earlier Wednesday, there was no Army presence in either Bab al-Tabbaneh or Jabal Mohsen, but four military vehicles were stationed on Syria Street.
The Army was responding to sources of sniper fire which forced the closure of the highway connecting Tripoli to the northern city of Akkar.
On the streets of Bab al-Tabbaneh, gunmen – some of whom are children – continue to roam freely.
Khaled al-Sayyed, the newly appointed spokesperson for armed groups in Bab al-Tabbaneh, told The Daily Star that the groups had no intention to reignite the conflict and urged the Army to intervene when necessary.
Fighters accused the government of providing political cover for their rival, Arab Democratic Party head Rifaat Eid.
Eid, who during similar clashes in Tripoli earlier this year called for the return of the Syrian army so that it might restore calm, said that his party was not armed but that its members were, adding that combating the proliferation of weapons in the country requires dialogue.
Speaking to Al-Jadeed television station, Eid also urged Sleiman to give Tripoli more attention in future National Dialogue sessions.
Earlier Wednesday, Saad al-Masri, a gunman who held sway in one of the main districts of Bab al-Tabbaneh, was buried in a large funeral.
Lebanon’s stability has been in the spotlight since Syria’s uprising – now in its 18th month – intensified at the start of this year. Differences over the uprising have exacerbated tensions between Lebanon’s already divided political camps: the pro-Assad March 8 alliance and pro-opposition March 14 coalition.
The violence came less than a week after Lebanon was jolted by a wave of kidnappings of Syrians and two Turkish nationals by the Meqdad clan and other groups that seek to exchange them for 12 Lebanese held hostage by Syrian rebels.
A Meqdad family member was recently kidnapped by Syrian rebels in Damascus and 11 Lebanese pilgrims were abducted in May.