TRIPOLI, Lebanon (Reuters) - The red, green and black flags adopted by Syrian rebels flutter in the December wind and rain as the sound of a mortar bomb explosion echoes off bullet-marked apartment blocks.
But this is not Syria. It’s the coastal city of Tripoli in the civil-war-ravaged country’s little neighbor: Lebanon.
Two men were killed in the early hours of Friday morning and dozens more wounded in what residents and security sources say were the heaviest clashes this year between Lebanese gunmen loyal to opposing sides in Syria’s war.
Tripoli is a majority Sunni Muslim city and mostly supports the Sunni-led uprising in Syria. But it also has an Alawite minority - the same sect as President Bashar al-Assad - and street fights between Sunnis and Alawites are common every time Lebanon gets dragged further into the crisis next door.
The spark this time was the killing last week of at least 14 Sunni Muslim Lebanese and Palestinian gunmen from north Lebanon by Syrian government forces in a Syrian border town.
The gunmen appeared to have joined insurgents waging a 20-month-old revolt against Assad, and residents in Tripoli say several came from Tripoli’s Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh.
Syrian state television has shown graphic footage of the dead Lebanese men, riddled with gunshot wounds.
“Someone had to pay for the blood,” said a Tripoli security source on condition of anonymity. “The Sunni gunmen attacked some Alawites in the market and then snipers positioned themselves,” he added.
That was on Tuesday. By Friday, 12 people had died in Tripoli and more than 100 had been wounded by rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and mortar bombs.
“There is fighting on more streets than ever before,” said a resident who asked not to be named.
The entire area was blocked off by the army and fighters from both sides who have previously spoken to Reuters were not answering their phones on Friday.
The army has been instructed to return fire in an attempt to halt the spiraling violence. But residents say it is no use and several soldiers have been wounded.
“We have the army here but it’s only symbolic,” said Abu Ammar, a Sunni resident of Bab al-Tabbaneh who spoke to Reuters on a roundabout near his home which was out of the range of the guns but within earshot of the clashes.
“The best thing would be for the army to retreat. Let the two sides finish it themselves,” said the middle-aged man, sheltering from the rain under a shop awning and watching tanks sitting on the roundabout.
Gunmen have fought intermittently in Tripoli since the late 1980s - during Lebanon’s own 15-year civil war - over various political and territorial issues and Syria’s conflict could be the latest excuse rather than the reason for the violence.
“AS BAD AS HOMS”
Abu Yazen, a Syrian from the central city of Homs, fought Syrian troops alongside rebels but fled two weeks ago to Tripoli where he hoped the Sunni majority would provide some protection for his family.
“There are a lot of Syrians here and we are wondering why they are fighting,” the 26-year-old said. “The sounds of explosions last night were at least as bad as in Homs,” he said. Parts of Homs have been leveled during months of government bombardment - a scale of destruction far greater than Tripoli has seen.
Abu Yazen, who has a Sunni-style beard, says he fought alongside Sunni Lebanese in Homs against Assad’s forces but that sectarian fighting in Tripoli was nonsensical. “I don’t want it to escalate here.”
Lebanese politicians are paralyzed by sectarian divides in Lebanon that make a political solution to the recurring violence unlikely. Shi‘ite political and guerrilla movement Hezbollah and its allies support Assad and the country’s Sunni-led opposition bloc, March 14, backs the revolt.
Politicians in the small Mediterranean state have agreed only to distance themselves from the turmoil in its neighbor. But as rebels in Syria move to encircle Damascus and Lebanese fighters move into Syria, it is getting harder to stay neutral. Syrian rebels say they have also fought against Syrian troops who are backed up by Hezbollah guerrillas.
Syria’s deputy foreign minister said on Thursday Lebanon should do more to stop fighters joining rebels in his country.
“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.
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 led an investigation that implicated Damascus and Hezbollah in the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, a Sunni.
Posters of Hassan’s face photoshopped onto a Lebanese flag line the streets of Tripoli, with text calling him a hero and the protector of the country. Clashes between gunmen from Bab al-Tabbaneh and Alawites in neighboring Jabal Mohsen erupted in the days after Hassan’s assassination, too.
On Friday, Tripoli’s streets were sprawling with soldiers in armored vehicles even though most of the city’s residents were continuing to go about their lives.
After all-night fighting in the pouring rain, most gunmen were resting, residents said.
They won’t be resting for long. Protesters have demanded that the bodies of the slain Lebanese militants in Syria be returned and security sources say that on Saturday the funerals will likely be held, which could lead to more fighting.
Editing by Philippa Fletcher