Fierce clashes in Tripoli as Lebanon teeters

Army entering town after heavy battles between pro- and anti-Assad fighters, day after prime minister brings down government

Fighters armed with automatic weapons, mortars and rocket propelled grenades clashed in the Lebanese city of Tripoli Saturday, as the army readied to quash spillover violence from neighboring Syria.

The fierce fighting in the city came a day after Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati stepped down over political infighting.

Lebanese media reported several people injured Saturday night in the fierce fighting between pro- and anti-Bashar Assad partisans in the country’s second largest city, as sectarian tensions threatened to plunge the country into further chaos.

The army said Saturday night it would enter the Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen to restore order, after the worst fighting the city has seen since the latest round of violence erupted on Thursday.

Some seven people have been killed and scores more injured in three days of fighting, according to Lebanese media.

On Friday, gunmen who support and oppose Assad clashed in Tripoli, leaving six people dead and more than 20 wounded, according to the National News Agency. Clashes between the Sunni neighborhood of Bab Tabbaneh, which supports Syria’s rebels, and Jabal Mohsen, which supports Assad, have broken out repeatedly in recent months. Assad is Alawite, a Shiite offshoot sect.

Earlier on Saturday, Mikati began his first day as caretaker prime minister until a new government can be elected.

Mikati’s abrupt resignation plunged the nation into uncertainty amid heightened sectarian tensions and clashes related to the civil war next door in Syria.

Mikati stepped down on Friday amid a political deadlock between Lebanon’s two main political camps and infighting within his own government.

“I hope that this resignation will provide an opening in the existing deadlock and pave the way for a (political) solution,” Mikati said, following a meeting with Michel Suleiman.

Mikati has been prime minister since June 2011, heading a government dominated by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah and its allies, many of whom have a close relationship with Syria.

Their main rivals are a Western-backed coalition headed by former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, son of Rafik Hariri, who was also prime minister and was killed in a truck bombing in 2005.

A Harvard-educated billionaire, Mikati was chosen to lead the government after Hezbollah forced the collapse of Lebanon’s previous, pro-Western government over fears that a U.N.-backed tribunal investigating the killing of the elder Hariri would indict Hezbollah members.

But Mikati’s relations with Hezbollah have never been smooth. He has rejected the notion that he serves Hezbollah or that his government will act as an Iranian proxy. Hezbollah accuses him of being loyal to its rival camp.

He stepped down to protest the parliament’s inability to agree on a law to govern elections set for later this year, as well as the refusal by Hezbollah and its allies in the cabinet to extend the tenure of the country’s police chief. Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi is 58 and is about to hit the mandatory retirement age for his rank.

Rifi, like Mikati, is a Sunni Muslim who is considered a foe by Hezbollah.

In a speech on Friday, Mikati said that if Rifi was not allowed to stay on, his departure would create a “vacuum” in the police department.

Underpinning the political crisis are Lebanon’s hugely sectarian politics and the fact that the country’s two largest political blocs support opposite sides in Syria’s civil war. Lebanon and Syria share a complex network of political and sectarian ties, and many fear that violence in Syria will spread to Lebanon.

Opposition activists celebrated Mikati’s resignation by dismantling protest tents they had pitched outside the prime minister’s office for months, calling for the government’s resignation.

Among those was Karim Rifae, who said Hezbollah was preparing a second “coup” against the Lebanese state.

“They started with bringing such a government in, and when it fulfilled their targets, now they are removing it to create a deadly vacuum starting with the government then the parliament,” he said.

Mikati’s resignation may be an attempt to boost his credentials among his fellow Sunni Muslims ahead of the upcoming election and amid the violence in Tripoli, his hometown.

Some Lebanese media have speculated that his decision to step down was based on “insinuations” from the US and its allies to clear the way for an anti-Hezbollah majority, or at least a neutral government. Mikati in his speech denied that he had been pressured by foreign powers, insisting that it was a “personal choice without any intervention from anyone.”

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Friday the Lebanese people deserve a government that reflects their aspirations.

“And we have grave concerns about the role that Hezbollah plays,” she added.

British Foreign Minister William Hague expressed concern about the violence in Tripoli and urged all parties to work for “a more consensual government” as the challenges from Syria grow.

“It is critical that all parties in Lebanon prioritize national interests and … reach a broad consensus to enable parliamentary elections to take place within the legal and constitutional framework,” he said in a statement.

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