BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Two 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 neighbouring Syria’s civil war, residents said.
A total of eight people have now been killed and 58 wounded in fighting 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 polarised 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.
They appeared to have joined majority-Sunni insurgents waging a 20-month-old revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shi’ism.
Syrian state television has shown graphic footage of the dead men, riddled with gunshot wounds.
Tripoli is a majority Sunni city and mostly supports the uprising next door, but it also has an Alawite minority and street fights between Sunni and Alawite gunmen have erupted several times since the revolt began.
Residents said they had heard heavy gunfire overnight as soldiers tried to stop the gun battle, while the army said it had arrested five men on suspicion of opening fire. It said two of its soldiers had been wounded.
Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour asked the Syrian ambassador to hand over the bodies of the slain gunmen 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 the Sunni neighbourhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawite area of Jabal Mohsen.
Lebanon’s population is deeply divided over Syria’s crisis, with Shi’ite movement Hezbollah and its allies supporting Assad and the Sunni-led March 14 movement supporting the revolt against him.
Syrian troops were garrisoned in Lebanon until 2005 when anti-Syrian demonstrators took to the streets, accusing Damascus of assassinating Rafik al-Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister and a Sunni.