TRIPOLI, Lebanon (Reuters) - Five men were killed in the Lebanese port city of Tripoli on Thursday during sectarian clashes between gunmen loyal to opposing sides in neighbouring Syria’s civil war, residents said.
Ten people have now died in sporadic clashes in the city since Tuesday, the latest bout of violence that has roots in Lebanon’s own 15-year civil war but which has intensified as Syria’s conflict polarised Lebanese society.
Tripoli is a majority Sunni Muslim city and mostly supports the uprising in Syria, but it also has an Alawite minority and street fights between Sunni and Alawite gunmen have erupted several times since the revolt began.
Most of the dead have been shot by snipers along Tripoli’s Syria Street, which divides the Sunni neighbourhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh from the Alawite area of Jabal Mohsen.
The clashes on Thursday were between gunmen from the neighbouring districts. Three of the dead were from Jabal Mohsen and two from Bab al-Tabbaneh, but it was unclear if they were involved in the fighting or bystanders.
Army vehicles were posted at major road junctions near the area, witnesses said, and intermittent gunfire could still be heard.
Tensions have been high since at least 14 Sunni Muslim Lebanese and Palestinian gunmen from north Lebanon were killed a week ago by Syrian government forces in a Syrian town close to the border.
They appeared to have joined mainly Sunni insurgents waging a 20-month-old revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite faith is derived from Shi‘ite Islam.
Syrian state television has shown graphic footage of the dead Lebanese men, riddled with gunshot wounds.
Residents in Tripoli said they had heard heavy gunfire overnight as soldiers tried to stop clashes. The army said two of its soldiers had been wounded and that it had arrested five men on suspicion of opening fire.
Lebanon’s population is deeply divided over Syria’s crisis, with Shi‘ite political and guerrilla movement Hezbollah and its allies supporting Assad and the country’s Sunni-led opposition bloc, March 14, backing the revolt.
Politicians in the small Mediterranean state have agreed to distance themselves from the turmoil in its neighbour, but Syria’s deputy foreign minister said on Thursday more should be done to prevent Lebanese fighters joining rebels in his country.
“We turn to the Lebanese government and we say, enough. When the situation is linked to the killing of Syrians, it is no longer possible to maintain the position of neutrality,” Faisal Maqdad said in an interview with Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV. He did not elaborate on what measures should be taken.
Assad’s opponents blame Syria, whose troops were garrisoned in Lebanon until 2005, for the unresolved October killing of Lebanese security official Wissam al-Hassan. Hassan had been leading an investigation that implicated Damascus and Hezbollah in the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, a Sunni.
Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour asked the Syrian ambassador to hand over the bodies of the gunmen killed in the Syrian town a week ago, after their families protested in Tripoli and demanded the Lebanese government return the dead and determine the whereabouts of the missing.
The bodies will be returned on Saturday, an event which could further inflame tensions along Syria Street.
Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer