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Middle East

Homs bloodshed spills over into Lebanon

The siege of the beleagured city was spark that blew across the border, reports Robert Fisk from Tripoli

The Syrian war cost the life of Mohamed Bathish and he was buried amid volleys of gunfire yesterday in the city where he died - in northern Lebanon.

For the siege of Homs - scarcely 40 miles over the mountains from the fine old Lebanese city of Tripoli - smoulders beneath the land here, Lebanese Alawites on the hilltop of Jebel Mohsen, Sunni Muslims spread out across Bab el-Tebbaneh, and it was here that Bathish was killed, shot in the head by a sniper in the longest gun battle Tripoli has witnessed in years. Bathish was a Sunni; and 10 per cent of the Sunnis of Tripoli have relatives in Homs.

Amid the bullet-smashed apartment blocks on the hill, the Lebanese army now prowls. There are tanks and armoured personnel carriers and gloomy, empty streets and a dark feeling that Syria's horrors are closer than we feared. Five Lebanese soldiers were wounded - one received a bullet in the chest and is not expected to recover - along with six others wounded, including a 17-year old girl. To find Tripoli's "front line", you just have to follow the trail of hundreds of green-white-and-black "Free Syria Army" posters. "God - only Syria", they say on the top. But it was something far more provocative that started this gun and rocket battle.

A large group of Sunni civilians of Tripoli had gathered opposite Jebel Mohsen to protest against the Syrian regime's onslaught on its opponents in Homs. They raised a massive sheet on ropes over the main road; it depicted President Bashar al-Assad of Syria as a giant pig. This, the most awful of animals in Muslim eyes, did not, needless to say, commend itself to the Shia Alawis of Tripoli.

Outnumbered they may be - there are perhaps 40,000 of them in this, the third city of Lebanon - but well armed they are. After plastering their balconies with pictures of Assad (as a man, not a pig), volleys of rifle and then rocket fire echoed across the Abu Ali River.

The Lebanese army managed to tear down the "pig" but it was too late. So serious did the sectarian fighting become that a frightened Najib Mikati, the Lebanese Prime Minister and a Tripolitanian himself, had to telephone the army commander, General Jean Kahwagi, from Paris, where he is on an official visit to President Sarkozy. Smother the fighting, he said. It took a while. When the Syrian cities of Deraa and Idlib were under regime attack, it mattered less; Homs was the spark that blew across the Syrian-Lebanese border. And it landed amid the tinderwood of Jebel Mohsen where one pro-Syrian poster depicts Assad's portrait next to that of Jesus and Mary (at least one of them, surely, shouldn't be there).

Before the French mandate and its colonial borders, Homs and Tripoli were so close that families would cross the mountains between them for weekends; indeed, under the Ottomans, Tripoli was part of Syria itself. Arabist Sunnis in Tripoli, according to Mustafa Alloush, wish that the frontier-creating French mandate never ended. He should know.

A medical doctor and Sunni supporter of Saad Hariri and his 14th March party - ferocious critics of Syria who still believe that Damascus ordered the 2005 assassination of Saad's ex-Prime Minister father, Rafiq - Alloush was able to demonstrate his ability at karate on a pro-Syrian politician on Lebanese television just a few days ago. His own mother is an Alawite.

"The tension here just built up over the last four months," he said yesterday. "The background of the Syrian revolution put everything on edge in Tripoli. Homs is so close, although most of the Alawis here come from Lattakia."

Lattakia is on the Syrian coast to the north, originally a Sunni city; thus do the sliding patterns of demography burn themselves back and forth across the border. In the 1930s, Alawites moved into the centre of Damascus, Sunnis to the suburbs, many of them with extended families inside Lebanon.

Normally a rather docile man as well as a much respected doctor, most of Alloush's family are on the Syrian side of the border.

"Some of my family are the children of landlords and one of them - a bitter critic of Assad - was talking to me the other day. He is desperately afraid of what is going to happen in the future between Alawis and Sunnis.

He said to me: 'There will be revenge. And when they come for me, do you think they are going to ask me if I am pro- or anti-regime?'"