The crack of gunfire and the heavy thud of rocket-propelled grenades rang out over Lebanon’s second city of Tripoli today as the death toll climbed during a third day of running street battles that have ominous echoes of the conflict in neighbouring Syria.
A shaky ceasefire took hold last night but Sunni fighters warned that “just one bullet” from the other side would renew the clashes, which claimed two further lives today, taking the total killed to 12. Around 80 have been injured.
Lebanon has been licked by the flames of the 17-month civil war that is raging over the border, but it is the northern city of Tripoli that the fault lines are most acute.
The rivalry between the Alawite neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen, which stands firmly behind the Assad regime, and the pro-revolution Sunnis down the hill in Bab al-Tabbaneh, has been enflamed by the conflict over the border. But the fighting is underpinned by poverty and deep-seated mutual resentment.
Around ten rocket propelled grenades fell in the space of just a few hours this afternoon in the vicinity of the aptly named Syria Street, the front line between the two communities, according to the fighters who exchanged fire back and forth up the hill.
After the ceasefire came into effect at 5.30pm today a large army deployment trundled into the area. Troops had withdrawn a day earlier after coming under attack from grenades, sending the conflict into an even more deadly tangent.
Those killed over the past three days include a 13-year-old and a soldier. The city's small Islamic Charitable Hospital said it has so far treated 36 people injured in the fighting. Nine are in-patients, two of whom are in a critical condition.
“We are expecting more,” said Azzam Assoum, the hospital’s general director.
Tripoli has been rocked by clashes over the past year and a half, but those that have engulfed the city over the past three days have been the most intense, with some residents going as far as to describe them as worst since Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.
“We are trapped in this cycle of fighting with no where to go,” said a taxi driver from the Bab al-Tabbaneh. “What is the point? We are just being used in someone else’s game.”
The accusation that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been trying to stir-up dissent in Lebanon to distract from problems at home is a common one and a spate of kidnappings has fuelled fears of a spill-over.
Lebanese Prime Minister Nijab Mikati has warned that the country must unite to protect the country from “the burning fires all around it”.
However, tensions remain on a knife-edge. Abu Bera, a Sunni fighter from Bab al Tabbaneh said his men were ready to lay down arms, but had taken a new delivery of ammunition in the afternoon.
“Of course if there’s just one bullet from Jabal Mohsen we will make another fight, we will not just sit and take it,” he said. “We are so angry, so many people have died.”