TRIPOLI, Lebanon (Reuters) - Two people were killed and at least eight wounded in street battles in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli Saturday, a security source said, during a second day of clashes between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The coastal city is dominated by Sunni Muslims who support the 11-month uprising against Assad in neighboring Syria, and is also home to members of Assad’s Alawite minority. The two communities frequently clash, but tensions have heightened since the outbreak of unrest in Syria.
Residents said rocket-propelled grenades were fired from the Sunni Muslim district of Bab al-Tabbaneh toward the Alawite district of Jebel Mohsen Friday, but caused no injuries.
Saturday, Reuters Television footage showed gunmen taking cover on street corners and firing volleys of automatic gunfire.
“We are the supporters of the Syrian revolution in Lebanon, and we are going to fight the shabbiha,” one of the gunmen said, referring to pro-Assad militias blamed by Syrian opposition activists for much of the killing in Syria.
A Lebanese army statement said troops had deployed in the Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jebel Mohsen districts to restore order and were raiding areas that took part in the clashes, making arrests and seizing weapons.
Several soldiers were wounded, one seriously, it said.
One man also died Saturday after a weapons store exploded in the Abu Samra district of Tripoli.
Friday’s violence came after hundreds of people demonstrated against Assad following weekly Muslim prayers, a regular occurrence in Tripoli since protests against the Syrian leader erupted last year.
The turmoil in Syria has fuelled tensions across Lebanon where Syria has many allies, including the powerful Shi’ite group Hezbollah, as well as foes who resent the nearly three decades of Syrian military presence which ended in 2005.
Saad al-Hariri, the Sunni Muslim former prime minister who was toppled last year by allies of pro-Syrian Shi’ite Hezbollah, sought to step up pressure on Assad by calling for Arab states to formally recognize the opposition Syrian National Council.
“The Syrian people are facing a military machine that does not care for human and moral values,” Hariri said in a statement Friday.
Arab states “should start by recognizing the Syrian National Council as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and pull the rug from under the feet of the brutal regime.”
Hariri’s successor Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni Muslim from Tripoli, acknowledged tension was high in the city, “but the army is there....playing its role fully,” he said.
Mikati has tried to maintain a neutral position over Syria, stressing Lebanon’s strong historical ties to Damascus but also its wider Arab interests.
“We need to take into consideration the internal divisions in Lebanon,” Mikati’s office quoted him as saying on a visit to France Saturday. For these reasons “we believe the preferable option is to keep our distance from the events in Syria.”
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has defended Assad and said he should be given the chance to implement reform.
Arab foreign ministers meet in Cairo Sunday to consider whether to extend or scrap an observer mission sent to Syria in December. The mission was suspended last month as violence escalated in Syria.
Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Angus MacSwan