What is happening today represents a political message par excellence to Prime Minister Najib Mikati

At least 6 people killed, 10 wounded in violence between gunmen from rival groups
ple, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed and more than 10 wounded in clashes between gunmen from rival groups in Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s home city of Tripoli Friday, presenting his new government with its first security challenge.

A cease-fire deal, reached during a meeting at Mikati’s home in Tripoli, went into effect at midnight Friday.

The fighting pitted gunmen from the mainly Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh district against those from the predominantly Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen shortly after supporters of anti-regime protests in Syria staged a demonstration in Bab al-Tabbaneh.

Residents from the two districts have clashed intermittently in recent years, but Friday’s incident came amid heightened tension over the widening popular uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Jabal Mohsen is the stronghold of the pro-Syria Arab Democratic Party, led by Ali Eid.

The victims were identified as ADP security official Ali Fares, first sergeant in the Lebanese Army Mahmoud Abdel Hamid, Mohammad Shaqra, 14-year old Abdel-Rahman Habshiti, Ahmad Rifai and Khodr Masri.

The Lebanese Army confirmed the death of a soldier and the wounding of two others, adding that army units were carrying out raids to arrest gunmen.

“The army command warns that it will respond with firmness and strength to the sources of fire from any side and will not show leniency with anyone carrying arms or jeopardizing the lives of people,” the army said a statement.

Mikati said the timing of the incident was suspicious and vowed to take action to restore calm to the city, stressing that security was “a red line” that will not be allowed to be crossed. “Civil strife is wreaking havoc with the security of the city and its people,” the prime minister told a news conference from his home in Tripoli, flanked by four of his ministers.

“The timing of what happened in Tripoli is suspicious. The security of people and the country is our responsibility. Therefore, I affirm that civil peace is a red line. There will be no bargaining at all over security,” Mikati said.

“I have given strict instructions to the army and security forces to take severe measures and strike with an iron fist. Whoever thinks they are stronger than the state and the law are mistaken,” he added. Gunmen deployed heavily in both neighborhoods and snipers opened fire on the Tripoli-Minnieh highway, forcing its closure. Rocket-propelled grenades fell F R O M PAG E 1 in the Zahrieh and Jisr neighborhoods of the city as well.

As The Daily Star went to press, the Lebanese Army deployed heavily at the scene of the fighting to prevent renewal of clashes.

The ADP’s Rifaat Ali Eid held Arab and foreign intelligence agencies responsible for what happened in Tripoli.

“What is happening today represents a political message par excellence to Prime Minister Najib Mikati,” he told Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV station. He added that Tripoli residents were paying the price for political tension in the country.

Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn telephoned army commander General Jean Kahwagi to discuss how to halt the clashes in Tripoli.

Ghosn stressed that the army had taken necessary measures to restore security in Tripoli.

“The army will proceed with taking all steps to punish those responsible for instability,” Ghosn said. “The Lebanese Army will continue to fully shoulder its responsibilities as it always has done. It will nip strife in the bud and consolidate security throughout the country.”

Concussion grenades were thrown into the crowd and machine-gun fire was used, according to security sources.

The Lebanese Army, which was deployed to the area ahead of the planned protest which began at 2:30 p.m., has increased its presence in both areas following the clashes. A special army commando unit arrived on the scene around 6:30 p.m.

The army was deployed heavily around the two neighborhoods to prevent an escalation, but residents were already starting to leave, seeking safety elsewhere.

President Michel Sleiman followed up on the security situation in Tripoli with Ghosn, Kahwagi and Interior Minister Marwan Charbel.

Lebanon’s northern border has already seen an influx of Syrians who escaped a military assault in the border village of Tal Kalakh last month.

After Friday noon prayers, dozens of demonstrators took to Nour Square in Tripoli, chanting against Assad’s crackdown against a three-month wave of popular protests calling for his downfall.

The Alawite community is relatively small in Lebanon but it gained some political clout when Syria dominated Lebanon through its 29-year military presence, which ended in 2005.

Ironically, Mikati and four of his ministers, who hail from Tripoli, traveled Friday to the city to attend a ceremony celebrating the formation of a 30-member Cabinet. Mikati said he canceled plans for the ceremony after the clashes.

Mikati, whose government has come under blistering verbal attacks by the March 14 parties since it was formed Monday, said: “I have said in our statement that we understand that the opposition is peaceful. That’s what we have been promised. We understand today that security incidents have happened. We are doing our job fully to nip the strife in the bud in this city.”

Earlier Friday, Mikati stressed that Lebanon’s stability and national unity were “a red line.”

There are fundamental challenges facing Lebanon in the international community and the new Cabinet will not allow anything to harm the country’s national unity, Mikati said.

“We are part of the international community and we want the best relations with friendly and neighboring countries. There are fundamental challenges that we will face and be attentive regarding their dangers and repercussions,” Mikati said during a meeting with a delegation of the International Business Group.

“Lebanon’s safety, stability and the unity of its people are red lines that no one is allowed to cross,” Mikati added.

A coalition of Syrian-backed Lebanese parties and politicians said the clashes in Tripoli were aimed at crippling the Cabinet’s work and called on the army and security forces to put an end to the state of insecurity in Tripoli.

A statement issued by the coalition blamed “a group of collaborators” against the security of Lebanon and Syria for the clashes.

“What these groups are doing is aimed at putting spikes in the wheels of the Cabinet’s work, undermining security and stability in the country and creating chaos in order to serve the American project in the region,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah praised the formation of Mikati’s government as “a very important step at the national level.”

Nasrallah’s remarks came during a meeting with Syrian Social Nationalist Party leader MP Asaad Hardan, according to a statement issued Friday by Hezbollah’s media office.

The statement said the two men discussed the latest political developments in Lebanon and the region. Nasrallah and Hardan underlined the need for the March 8 coalition to shoulder its responsibilities and cooperate “in order to attain accomplishments expected by the Lebanese people at various levels,” it added.