Lebanon army clashes with militants in Tripoli for the third day in a row

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Lebanese army soldiers help evacuate civilians during clashes with Islamist gunmen in the historic market of the northern city of Tripoli on October 25, 2014. (Photo: AFP - Ibrahim Chalhoub)

Published Sunday, October 26, 2014

Updated at 3:50 pm (GMT +3): Six Lebanese soldiers and two civilians have been killed in ongoing battles between the Lebanese army and Islamist militants in the city of Tripoli in north Lebanon for the third day in a row Sunday, as the army vowed to eliminate all "terrorist cells" threatening Lebanon and its security.

According to state-run National News Agency (NNA), the security situation in Tripoli had deteriorated at dawn Sunday when heavy clashes between the army and militants erupted in the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood.

The Lebanese army seized three explosives-laden cars during raids in Bhanin neighborhood al- Minieh north Lebanon, the military announced in a statement Sunday.

The statement said that along with the three cars, a warehouse containing large amounts of weapons and military equipment were found, as well as “50 explosive devices ready to be detonated.”

Moreover, also in Bhanin, the army targeted militants in the As-Salam school and army helicopters pounded the surroundings of Haroun Mosque, where Sheikh Khaled Hablas’ militants, a group that attacked the army Saturday, were hiding.

Thirteen soldiers, one sergeant and one lieutenant were wounded during the clashes.

Scores of families left Tripoli in the wake of renewed fighting, NNA field reporters said.

The fighting began on Friday after at least 20 militants attacked an army patrol in the Khan al-Askar area, near the heart of the coastal city, wounding four soldiers.

On Saturday, the violence in Tripoli continued, spreading to the market in the northern city's historical center, which is on the shortlist for selection as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Lebanese army helicopters pounded hideouts of the militants in the city's souks in the first such air attack since the war in neighboring Syria erupted in 2011.

A civilian caught in the crossfire and a gunman were killed, while 14 soldiers, eight civilians, including two photographers, and at least six militants were wounded.

Moreover, dozens of shops were destroyed in the fighting, said the AFP journalist who also saw scores of civilians, including women and children, who had been trapped in the market during the fighting, fleeing when the clashes stopped.

Gunmen also took one soldier captive in Tripoli as he was riding in a taxi, security sources said.

Moreover, an officer was killed and two others wounded when gunmen fired “a rocket-propelled grenade against an army vehicle in the northern area of al-Minieh (10 kilometres (6 miles) from Tripoli)," the army said in a statement.

A third soldier died from wounds sustained in fighting on Friday.

Tripoli has seen some of the worst spillover from war in Syria, whose border is only about 30 km (20 miles) north up the coast from the ancient port city.

Elsewhere in northern Lebanon, two soldiers were killed and several others wounded when militants shot at a military vehicle in the Akkar area of Mhamra near the Syrian border.

In statements published by NNA Saturday, the army said “the pursuit of terrorist gunmen in Tripoli is continuing and will not be pulled back until after the terrorists are eliminated."

For the past few months, the military has been coming under increasing armed attacks, mainly in northern Lebanon. The fighting came three months after the army clashed with jihadists from Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) groups in the northeastern town of Ersal.

On Sunday, Nusra threatened to execute one of the Lebanese soldiers the group abducted from Ersal in August if the Lebanese army does not halt its ongoing crackdown on militants in Tripoli.

In a statement on Twitter, the group accused the army of targeting “Sunnis” in Tripoli, threatening to “consider the abducted soldiers as prisoners of war” and start by executing soldier Ali al-Bazzal unless the army “ends its siege” and “launch a peaceful solution.”

At least three of the soldiers Nusra and ISIS abducted during Ersal clashes have been executed, a few were released, and about 27 are still being held by the Islamists.

The arrest of an “ISIS commander”

The army on Thursday said in a statement that it killed three militants and arrested an “ISIS commander,” Ahmad Salim Mikati, in Assoun in Dinniyeh, north Lebanon, during a dawn raid on his apartment.

Security sources said Friday that Mikati admitted to belonging to ISIS and recruiting young Lebanese men to join ISIS.

In addition, he was planning to kidnap soldiers and policemen to exert pressure on the government to accept a swap deal with the militants holding 27 soldiers and policemen hostage.

The army also arrested 12 members of his terrorist cell including a “wanted terror suspect” called Rabih Shemali, Mikati’s son Omar, and Mikati’s nephew, Bilal Mikati, who is implicated in the beheading of Lebanese soldier Ali Sayyed.

Media reports said Mikati and members of his terrorist cell, 5 Lebanese and 7 Syrian nationals, had plans to meet with another terrorist cell to help execute suicidal terrorist attacks against Shia gatherings in the southern suburb of Beirut, Nabatieh and Lassa in Jbeil.

Assafir daily reported on Friday that Mikati had been in “constant contact” with a Lebanese MP from north Lebanon. Though the daily refrained from naming the MP, the descriptions given referred to Akkar MP Khaled Daher.

According to al-Jadeed TV, Mikati used to send “videos of defections of Lebanese army troops” to Daher.

On Saturday, NNA said “the army confiscated four rifles from the guard room of MP Khaled al-Daher's house in the Tripoli area of al-Dam wal Farz.”

Moreover, the army said in a statement Friday that DNA tests confirmed that a body pulled out from a militant hideout on Thursday belonged to Abdul-Kader Akoumi, a defected soldier who left the military to join ISIS earlier this month.

(Al-Akhbar, AFP, Reuters)

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