BEIRUT (AP) — Clashes between pro- and anti-Syria gunmen in a northern Lebanese city left two people dead and 12 wounded Saturday in the latest skirmish between Lebanese factions over the crisis in neighboring Syria, security officials said.
The two sides fired on each other from rival neighborhoods in Tripoli, one dominated by Sunnis, the other by Alawites, a Shiite offshoot sect. Officials said clashes started Friday night and continued sporadically Saturday afternoon.
Lebanese factions have been deeply divided over the Syrian uprising, and tensions have intensified with the regime's siege of the central Syrian city of Homs that has reportedly killed hundreds this week. Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime is dominated by Alawites, while the revolt against him has been led by Sunnis.
The battle took place between the Sunni neighborhood of Bab Tabbaneh and the Alawite district of Jabal Mohsen, which is positioned on a hill overlooking its rival. Gunmen fired automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades from among houses and alleys across the avenue that separates the two districts, ironically named Syria Street.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said one person from each neighborhood was killed, and six civilians and six soldiers were wounded as Lebanese troops tried to deploy between the two sides to stop the fighting.
A Lebanese army statement said troops conducted raids in the area, detained a number of gunmen and confiscated their weapons. It said one soldier was seriously wounded as troops faced gunfire and a grenade fell near a military vehicle.
The army command warned it will not tolerate any armed act, warning that gunmen will be held responsible for human or material losses among civilians and members of the military.
An Associated Press photographer in the area said streets were empty and people were hiding in their homes as cracks of gunfire were heard between the two neighborhoods. He added that troops were trying to deploy between the rivals.
Low-level clashes are common between Bab Tabanna and Jebel Mohsen, with occasional gunfire or grenade-throwing, because of the longtime sectarian tensions between their residents. But the violence has become more frequent in recent days because of the worsening situation in Syria. Sunnis in Bab Tabanna resent their Alawite neighbors' backing of Assad, while Jebel Mohsen residents accuse their rivals of giving aid to the uprising.
Each side blamed the other for starting the latest bout of violence.
Alawite leader Rifaat Eid told reporters in Tripoli that "we will not be pulled into strife even if they shell us starting today and lasting for 20 days."
The latest violence came a day after an arms cache hidden in an olive grove exploded in Tripoli's predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Abu Samra, killing one person and wounding three in what appeared to be an accident, security officials said. The incident was a sign of how widespread weapons are in Lebanon's north, not far from the Syrian border.
Tripoli is the hometown of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who was chosen last year by the Shiite Hezbollah group and its allies for the post at the head of a pro-Syrian government. Many Sunnis, who are largely anti-Syrian, were against his appointment.
Mikati met in Paris on Saturday with his anti-Syrian predecessor, Saad Hariri, who is undergoing treatment after he broke his leg while skiing, Hariri's office said. It was not clear if the meeting was the beginning of a reconciliation between the two Sunni leaders.