BEIRUT – Lebanese supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad fired heavy machine guns and lobbed mortar shells at each other Thursday in some of the worst fighting in the port city of Tripoli in years.
The battles raised the five-day death toll to 16 and fed fears of the Syrian civil war spreading to Lebanon and other neighboring countries.
The violence also added to the urgency of U.S.-Russian efforts to bring both sides of the Syrian conflict to a peace conference in Geneva. Members of the Syrian opposition began three-day meetings in Istanbul to hash out a unified position on whether to attend, while maintaining that Assads departure from power should be the goal of the negotiations.
Lebanon has been on edge since the uprising in Syria began in March 2011. The country, which is still struggling to recover from its own 15-year civil war, is sharply divided along sectarian lines and into pro- and anti-Assad camps. The overt involvement by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah Shiite militant group alongside Assads regime has sparked outrage among many Sunnis in Lebanon who identify with the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels fighting to topple Assad.
Deadly sectarian street fighting has erupted on several occasions, mostly in Tripoli, Lebanons largest city and a hotbed for Sunni Islamists. This weeks fighting there has been linked to a Syrian regime offensive against the rebel-held city of Qusair in western Syria that has included Hezbollah fighters supporting Syrian troops against the rebels.
Tripoli is overwhelmingly Sunni but has a tiny community of Alawites, members of Assads minority sect, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Residents reported more than six hours of fighting that began late Wednesday and continued through Thursday morning. Mortar shells were used for the first time. Ambulances rushed back and forth, transporting casualties to hospitals as officials used mosque loudspeakers to urge citizens to take shelter in basements. Schools and many businesses were shuttered Thursday as sporadic fighting continued.
Five people were killed, pushing the overall death toll to 16 since fighting began Sunday, with 200 people wounded, a security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.
It was a frightful night that instilled terror in the heart of every resident of Tripoli, said Shada Dabliz, a 40-year-old peace activist in the city. Tripoli is part of Lebanon; where is the state? Why doesnt the government do anything?
Cabinet minister Faisal Karami said the fighting was among the worst in the city since Lebanons civil war that ended in 1990, according to comments reported by Lebanons state-run National News Agency.
Ashraf Rifi, a former police chief who has a large Sunni following in Tripoli, said the flare-up in Tripoli was a direct result of Hezbollahs involvement in Syria and accused the group of trying to deflect attention from its participation in the fighting in Syria.