TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AFP) – The Lebanese army boosted its forces in the northern city of Tripoli on Thursday to try to shore up a ceasefire after four people were killed in gunbattles between rival sectarian factions.
Dozens of army vehicles moved into the restive districts of Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen in the northeast of the port city where fierce fighting between rival factions erupted late on Tuesday.
Fighting intensified overnight despite a ceasefire that was meant to come into effect at 1700 GMT Wednesday, but eased on Thursday as armed militants moved off the streets, an AFP correspondent said.
Four people were killed and 58 wounded in street battles between militants armed with rockets, sniper rifles and grenades on Wednesday, causing panicked residents to flee and shops and schools to close.
The dead included two brothers killed by snipers, a Palestinian nurse and a resident of the Jabal Mohsen district which is dominated by members of the Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, who support the opposition.
The latest unrest followed the eruption of similar battles two weeks ago in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city after the capital Beirut, that left nine people dead and dozens wounded.
It comes amid continued efforts by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora to form a national unity government which have been hampered by bickering between rival factions over cabinet posts.
Fighting was centred on a main road separating the areas of Bab al-Tebbaneh — where most residents are Sunni supporters of the Western-backed premier — and Jabal Mohsen, largely a pro-opposition area.
Television images showed masked gunmen running across deserted streets and smoke billowing out of nearby buildings as clashes continued intermittently throughout Wednesday.
The two sides announced later Wednesday that they had agreed to observe a ceasefire from 8 pm (1700 GMT) and allow the deployment of the army in the two neighbourhoods of Tripoli, which is home to almost 400,000 people.
“The army will deploy to maintain security and prevent any armed presence,” said a statement released after indirect negotiations between the two sides under the auspices of the Sunni mufti of north Lebanon, Sheikh Malek al-Shaar.
Sporadic fighting has erupted in Lebanon despite a power-sharing deal between rival factions aimed at ending political crisis that boiled over into clashes that left 65 dead in May and raised fears of a return to all-out civil war.
Main roads in the area were blocked on Wednesday, including the motorway that connects Tripoli to the Syrian border, while local schools and businesses were shut down.
Siniora has been struggling to form a new government despite a May 21 power-sharing deal hammered out in the Qatari capital Doha between the Sunni-led ruling majority and the mainly Shiite opposition led by Hezbollah.
He said on Tuesday that he hoped a cabinet could be formed by the time President Michel Sleiman heads to Paris for a Mediterranean summit opening on Sunday.
The Doha accord allocated 16 cabinet seats to the parliamentary majority and 11 to the opposition, while Sleiman is to name three ministers.