Middle East

Lebanon: Tripoli fighting gives way to tense calm

Troops in Bab al-Tabbaneh (27/10/14) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Troops went into Bab al-Tabbaneh on Monday in search of Sunni gunmen

A tense calm is reported in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli after days of deadly fighting between Sunni militants and government troops.

Soldiers entered the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighbourhood, to where the militants had retreated, on Monday, though there were no reports of clashes.

At least 10 soldiers, five civilians and about two dozen militants have been killed since Friday.

The fighting is some of the deadliest to have hit Lebanon for months.

Earlier, thousands of civilians left Bab al-Tabbaneh during a lull in the violence between troops and the militants, believed to be linked to al-Qaeda.

Army commanders ordered a truce to allow residents to flee.

The militants have threatened to execute captured soldiers if the army refuses to call off its operation.

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Media captionIt was the first time fighting has erupted in Tripoli's ancient bazaar, as Jim Muir reports

Sectarian divide

The clashes erupted on Friday after an incident in an outlying village the day before, in which three militants allegedly linked to Islamic State (IS) were killed.

On Saturday fighting raged in the Tripoli's Old City, a candidate for Unesco world heritage status.

Although there have been several bouts of fighting in Tripoli since war broke out in Syria, the recent clashes mark the first time militants have occupied its historic heart.

On Sunday reports emerged that the Sunni gunmen had retreated into Bab al-Tabbaneh.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Civilians pass a Tripoli checkpoint on Monday after thousands evacuated the city centre

The retreat came after government troops including commandos attacked with tanks and armoured vehicles.

Following the lull in fighting on Sunday night, thousands of men, women and children fled the neighbourhood, according to the AFP news agency.

Men were searched by soldiers occupying the area, reported the agency, while women escaped wearing only their pyjamas.

A statement released by the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, warned the Lebanese army to call off its attack, threatening to harm hostages if commanders failed to follow its instructions.

"We call on it to lift its siege and accept a peaceful solution," the statement said, "or else we will be forced in the coming hours to bring closure to the issue of the soldiers we are holding hostage, given that they are prisoners of war."

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Several civilians were wounded during fighting on Saturday, with reports that two died

Tripoli, like the rest of Lebanon, is sharply divided along largely sectarian lines between supporters and opponents of the regime in Syria.

The militants fighting in Tripoli accuse the army of siding with the Shia Hezbollah movement, a key supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, says the BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut.

Although mainstream Sunni clerics and politicians are opposed to the radicals in Tripoli, the militants nevertheless have their roots in the Sunni community, he adds.

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