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Lebanese army taking over in second-largest city

Tuesday - 12/3/2013, 2:08am  ET

A coffee street vendor passes on his scooter in front a green tarp hung to provide cover from snipers, during clashes between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Monday, Dec. 2, 2013. Gun battles and rocket fire in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli killed at least nine people and wounded dozens more over the weekend, the latest clash between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Arabic words on the tarp read:"Be aware!!! Danger sniper."(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Associated Press

TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) -- The government authorized the army Monday to take charge of security in Lebanon's second-largest city of Tripoli for six months following deadly sectarian clashes by rival sides stemming from the civil war in neighboring Syria.

Many fear that the violence in Tripoli -- only 18 miles (30 kilometers) from the Syrian border -- could tip the rest of Lebanon back toward chaos. At least 12 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in the latest fighting that broke out Saturday.

The decision by caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati after a high-level security meeting at the presidential palace is meant to allay fears that the fighting was spreading out of control in the northern port city. But the army is weak and has been largely unable to stop the violence. Dozens of soldiers have been killed and wounded in Tripoli this year, often caught in the crossfire between rival gunmen.

Sectarian clashes linked to the war in Syria often flare in Tripoli between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Lebanon is divided into a patchwork of sects, including Sunnis, Shiites and Christians. Syria's rebels are dominated by its Sunni Muslim majority, and Lebanese Sunnis mostly support their brethren across the border, while Lebanese Shiites have staked their future with the Assad regime. The Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah has played a critical role in recent battlefield victories for forces loyal to Assad.

The fighting in Tripoli is concentrated between two impoverished, rival neighborhoods. The Bab Tabbaneh district is largely Sunni Muslim, as are most of the Syrian rebels fighting Assad's rule. Residents of Jabal Mohsen, a neighborhood perched on a hill, are mostly from his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

But the violence in recent days has taken a more ominous turn, spreading to include other parts of Tripoli as snipers took up positions on rooftops, and gunbattles and rocket fire raged out of control.

On Monday, schools, universities and some businesses were mostly closed as occasional gunfire rang out.

Tripoli's landmark Abu Ali Square -- usually packed with cars, pedestrians and shoppers -- was largely deserted as ambulances took casualties to hospitals.

Lebanese military armored vehicles patrolled, sometimes helping carry terrified civilians to safe places.

At one point, a brown BMW sped toward an army checkpoint near the square and screeched to a halt. The shaken driver jumped out and shouted to the troops, "I have two soldiers who were shot in the neck."

The officers ran toward him, looked at the wounded soldiers in the car and said, "Take them straight to the hospital." The car sped away.

A soldier said the two wounded officers had been off duty and were going home in the northern region of Akkar when they were hit by sniper fire.

On Sunday night, announcements were made through mosque loudspeakers for people to move to lower floors to avoid being hit by bullets or shells.

"I am worried about Tripoli," said Khaled Tutunji, who works at a construction material shop near Abu Ali Square. "In the past, we did not know who is a Sunni and who is Alawite," he said as he stood beside an armored personnel carrier as cracks of gunfire echoed from a distance.

Tensions soared in the city in August, following twin bombings outside Sunni mosques that killed 47 people and wounded scores.

Authorities arrested several members of the pro-Assad Arab Democratic Party on suspicion they were involved and they summoned the group's leader, Ali Eid, for questioning. He has refused to go to the police intelligence office, saying he did not trust them to be impartial.

His son, Rifaat, said his father is ready to go to any security agency other than the police intelligence office, which many pro-Syrians accuse of being dominated by anti-Assad officers.

Since he refused to show up for questioning, a wave of attacks against Alawites intensified and more than a dozen members of the sect have been shot in the legs in Sunni neighborhoods. An unknown group named "Families of the (mosque) Victims" claimed responsibility for the shootings.

Saturday's clashes erupted after an Alawite was shot in the leg while in a Sunni neighborhood.

Following the security meeting that included President Michel Suleiman and army commander Gen. Jean Kahwaji, Mikati said the army was to take charge of security for six months.

The army would carry out patrols and implement arrest warrants issued for fugitives in the city, he added.

In Beirut, a security official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media said 600 policemen from different parts of Lebanon will be sent to Tripoli to help improve security, working under the army's command.

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