TRIPOLI, Lebanon – Two men were killed and at least 20 people were wounded in clashes between Alawite supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Sunni Muslims in the Lebanese city of Tripoli, medical sources said on Monday.
Fierce clashes overnight shook the northern port city and sporadic fighting continued on Monday. Machineguns and rocket propelled grenades were used.
Tension between the Alawite and Sunni communities in Tripoli has been fuelled by the unrest in neighboring Syria, where Assad is seeking to crush a 14-month-old uprising which began with largely peaceful protests against his rule but has become increasingly militarized.
Assad is from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, while Syria’s revolt has been led by the majority Sunni Muslims.
A small Alawite minority is concentrated in Tripoli, a conservative Sunni city where many residents have been enraged by the Syrian government’s crackdown.
Clashes began late on Saturday and three people were killed at the weekend in the city’s Alawite enclave and surrounding Sunni Muslim neighborhoods.
The fighting in Tripoli, 70 km (43 miles) from Beirut, highlights how sectarian tensions in Syria can ignite conflict in Lebanon. Buildings in the area are still riddled with bullet holes from similar clashes earlier in the year.
Islamist groups and officials were meeting in Tripoli on Monday to try to solve the crisis.
“The army may find it difficult to stop the fighting if we can’t agree on a way to calm people down,” said one Islamist cleric at the meeting, who asked not to be named.
Tension in Tripoli had been rising over the detention of Islamists and clashes started after police broke up a sit-in against the arrest of Shadi al-Moulawi.
A court on Monday charged Moulawi for involvement with an unnamed terrorist organization. He will be sent for a military trial, a court source said.
Islamists say Moulawi was working with Syrian refugees who had fled to Lebanon. Lebanon’s porous border has also been used by supporters of the Syrian uprising to smuggle arms and supplies to the opposition.
A statement by al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, an Islamist group in Tripoli, criticized Moulawi’s arrest as lacking due process. Police said he was arrested after thorough surveillance.