Troops move to contain trouble north Lebanon

June 23, 2008 12:00 am

, TRIPOLI, June 23 – Lebanese troops on Monday moved into north Lebanon where two days of fierce sectarian battles killed eight people, threatening to derail an accord to end the country’s political crisis.

The army threatened to use force to end the fighting that erupted on Sunday in the densely populated Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen districts of the port of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city after the capital Beirut.

At least eight people were killed and 45 wounded as fighters traded heavy machine-gun fire, mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades, prompting residents to flee or take to underground shelters.

Several homes and a petrol station were burned.

The fighting pitted Sunni supporters of the Western-backed majority against members of an Alawite sect loyal to the Hezbollah-led opposition, which is backed by Syria and Iran.

By late afternoon the fighting had died down, after troops backed by tanks and police reinforcements moved into the area, and threats by the military to use force to stop the bloodshed.

"We will use force if needed to end all armed presence in the combat zones where we are sending reinforcements following a unanimous accord between the warring sides calling for a ceasefire," an army spokesman said.

Representatives from the Sunni militant side and the Alawites, a secretive offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs, had agreed to a ceasefire on Sunday but fighting continued overnight and on Monday.

The clashes have raised fears of a nationwide security breakdown amid stalled efforts by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora to form a national unity government following last month’s deal to end an 18-month political crisis.

The accord reached in the Qatari capital of Doha on May 21 between the opposition and ruling coalition resulted in the election of army chief Michel Sleiman as president, ending a six-month vacuum in the top job.

But the initial euphoria that greeted Sleiman’s election has been replaced by a growing sense of foreboding as rival factions continue to bicker over the distribution of key portfolios in the new government.

The Doha accord calls for the opposition to have veto power over key decisions in the unity cabinet and the drafting of a new electoral law ahead of legislative elections due next year.

Violence has erupted in various parts of the country in recent days between supporters of the ruling majority and opposition militants.

The latest flare-up came as Arab and European leaders met in Vienna on Monday to raise funds for a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli that was destroyed in clashes last summer between Islamists and Lebanese troops.

"We really condemn every use of weapons against these civilians and the use of weapons inside the country," Siniora told journalists on the sidelines of the meeting in the Austrian capital.

"These are really acts that will undermine the stability of the country," he said.

"We are making every effort to put an end to these conflicts because this is not helping Lebanon nor the stability of the country."

Security in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps is also of concern following several incidents, notably in the largest camp of Ain el-Helweh, considered a hotbed of Islamist extremism.

Imad Yassin, a senior member of the Jund al-Sham Islamist group, was seriously wounded on Sunday in a blast near the camp in southern Lebanon along with two of his bodyguards.

Sectarian clashes across the country in May left at least 65 people dead and stoked fears that Lebanon, which endured 15 years of civil war up to 1990, was heading for a new conflict.


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