July 25, 2008 / 6:04 PM / 11 years ago

North Lebanon battle kills six, wounds 50

(Updates casualty toll)

TRIPOLI, Lebanon, July 25 (Reuters) - At least six people were killed on Friday in heavy clashes between rival sectarian factions in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, medical sources said.

Another 50 were wounded by the fighting between gunmen from the Sunni Muslim Bab Tibbaneh district and the Alawite Muslim Jabal Mohsen area of Tripoli. The fighters exchanged machinegun and grenade fire, forcing residents to flee.

Sectarian violence linked to Lebanon’s political troubles has killed at least 19 people in the past two months in the predominantly Sunni city. A military source said Friday’s casualties included a soldier who was seriously wounded.

The Tripoli fighting has cast a shadow over a deal that ended a bitter political conflict between Lebanon’s Sunni-led governing coalition and an opposition alliance led by Shi’ite Hezbollah, which is close to Alawite groups in the north.

The rival alliances formed a national unity government on July 11 after weeks of wrangling over portfolios. But they are now at odds over the government’s policy statement, with Hezbollah’s weapons at the heart of the dispute.

Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, used its arsenal to briefly seize Beirut and rout supporters of the anti-Damascus governing coalition in May.

The move helped Hezbollah impose its terms for an end to the political conflict.

The Alawite faith is a small offshoot of Shi’ite Islam and its adherents are mostly based in Syria which is ruled by President Bashar al-Assad, himself an Alawite.

Their numbers are small in Lebanon but they gained some political influence during an era of Syrian dominance that came to an end in 2005 after international pressure forced Damascus to withdraw troops from the country. (Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Tom Perry)

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