Three men were killed by sniper fire in the Lebanese port city of Tripoli on Thursday during sectarian clashes between gunmen loyal to opposing sides in neighboring Syria’s civil war, residents said.
Eight people have now been killed and 73 wounded in fighting in the city that started on Tuesday, the latest bout of violence that has roots in Lebanon’s own 15-year civil war but which has intensified as Syria’s conflict has polarized Lebanese society.
Tensions have been high since at least 14 Sunni Muslim Lebanese and Palestinian gunmen from north Lebanon were killed in a Syrian town close to the border a week ago by Syrian government forces.
They appeared to have joined mainly Sunni insurgents waging a 20-month-old revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite faith is derived from Shi’ite Islam.
Syrian state television has shown graphic footage of the dead Lebanese men, riddled with gunshot wounds.
Tripoli is a majority Sunni city and mostly supports the uprising in Syria, but it also has an Alawite minority and street fights between Sunni and Alawite gunmen have erupted several times since the revolt began.
The clashes on Thursday took place between gunmen from Tripoli’s Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawite area of Jabal Mohsen. Two of those killed were from Jabal Mohsen and the third from Bab al-Tabbaneh, but it was unclear if they were involved in the fighting or civilians.
Residents in Tripoli said they had heard heavy gunfire overnight as soldiers tried to stop clashes. The army said two of its soldiers had been wounded and that it had arrested five men on suspicion of opening fire.
Lebanon’s population is deeply divided over Syria’s crisis, with Shi’ite political and guerrilla movement Hezbollah and its allies supporting Assad and the country’s Sunni-led March 14 opposition bloc backing the revolt.
Politicians in the small Mediterranean state have agreed to distance themselves from the turmoil in its neighbor, but Syria’s deputy foreign minister said on Thursday more should be done to prevent Lebanese fighters joining rebels in his country.
“We turn to the Lebanese government and we say, enough. When the situation is linked to the killing of Syrians, it is no longer possible to maintain the position of neutrality,” Faisal Maqdad said in an interview with Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV. He did not elaborate on what measures should be taken.
Assad’s opponents blame Syria – whose troops were garrisoned in Lebanon until 2005 – for the unresolved October killing of Wissam al-Hassan, a Lebanese security official who was leading an investigation that implicated Damascus and Hezbollah in the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, a Sunni.
Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour asked the Syrian ambassador to hand over the bodies of the gunmen killed in the Syrian town a week ago, after their families protested in Tripoli and demanded the Lebanese government return the dead and determine the whereabouts of the missing.
The bodies will be returned on Saturday, an event which could inflame tensions along Tripoli’s Syria Street, the main thoroughfare dividing Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen.