Lebanese army tightens control over Tripoli after weekend clashes with militants

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Relatives of Lebanese army First lieutenant Firas Mahmud al-Hakim, who was killed during clashes with Islamist gunmen in the northern city of Tripoli, mourn during his funeral in the town of Mesherfeh near Bhamdun, in the mountains southeast of Beirut, on October 26, 2014. (Photo: AFP - Anwar Amro)

Published Monday, October 27, 2014

Updated at 7:00 pm (GMT +2): Eleven Lebanese soldiers and eight civilians have been killed in three days of battles between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Islamist militants in north Lebanon, as the army tightens its grip on the area.

Guns fell silent in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Monday after three days of deadly battles between the army and Islamist militants.

The army said it had taken the militants' last position in the city's Bab al-Tabbaneh district, focus of much of the fighting. It issued a statement saying gunmen who had fled should turn themselves or be hunted down.

"The army has taken over Bab al-Tebbaneh," said a military spokesman to AFP, adding that troops had captured 162 militants since Friday.

At least 11 soldiers, eight civilians and 22 militants have died in the fighting, security officials say.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese army on Monday used helicopters to fly over the towns of Donniyeh and Menieh to track down militants and target their locations.

The quieter morning followed battles overnight between the army and gunmen in areas surrounding Tripoli, where fighting linked to Syria's war has erupted several times in the last three years.

The fighting marks the worst spillover of Syria-related violence into Lebanon since early August, when Islamist insurgents affiliated to the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) staged an incursion into the border town of Ersal and took around 27 soldiers captive.

Three have been executed and the Nusra Front has threatened to kill a fourth in response to the army operation in Tripoli.

The latest fighting erupted after an army raid on a militant hideout last Thursday. The detained leader of the cell has told investigators its plan was to set up a safe haven for Islamist militants in villages near Tripoli, security sources said.

Earlier on Monday, as army units were combing the streets in Bab al-Tabbaneh, a gunman opened fire at Lebanese soldiers next to the Abdullah Bin Masoud mosque which prompted them to fire back, the Lebanese National News Agency (NNA) said.

During a phone call with the NNA, the Lebanese army confirmed on Monday that the military operation will continue in Tripoli, stressing "there is no truce or ceasefire in Tripoli." The army directorate added, "we insist on ending the abnormal situation in Tripoli."

A NNA correspondent reported that the Lebanese army conducted raids and searched the region's orchards to hunt down militants. Army experts also detonated unexploded bombs in the Barghasheh neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh.

Army intelligence succeeded Sunday in freeing the soldier Tannous Nehmeh who was kidnapped by gunmen on Saturday in Bab al-Tabbaneh as he was riding in a taxi. The freed soldier is in a good health, according to the NNA.

Lebanese army rejects repeat of the Ersal trap

Lebanon’s Minister of Justice Ashraf Rifi and Tripoli politicians have attempted to repeat the Ersal scenario by involving the Association of Muslim Scholars as a party to liaison with the Lebanese military leadership in order to declare a truce and secure an exit corridor for militants out of the city, Al-Akhbar recently learned.

However, unlike what happened in Ersal, the military leadership refused the suggestion, insisting on requiring the militants to surrender or continue the battle as long as necessary.

The suggestion of a truce and a secure corridor for militant leaders was also promoted by other Tripoli leaders, but the army quickly denied that any agreement was reached with the gunmen. In this context, pressure on the military establishment has been growing regarding the status of civilians in the area, and the military's response had been to facilitate a safe exit for all civilians.

Furthermore, military sources have expressed satisfaction with the position taken by current Prime Minister Tammam Salam and the military's performance in the battles raging in Tripoli.

Salam met ministers and security officials on Monday and said "it was necessary to continue the confrontation," his office said in a statement.

"The government stands united behind the legitimate military security forces in the battle they are fighting to strike the terrorists and restore security to Tripoli and the north."

Execution threat

The Lebanese army said on Sunday evening gunmen ambushed a patrol north of Tripoli, killing four soldiers.

"This afternoon, an army unit was targeted by a terrorist group while deploying in Duhur al-Mohammara. A clash broke out, which caused several casualties in the (militants') ranks, while four soldiers, including two officers, were martyred," the statement said.

Meanwhile, the militant Islamist group al-Nusra Front threatened to kill a Lebanese soldier at dawn on Monday unless the army halts its Tripoli operations.

Nusra Front captured several soldiers in August during a bloody battle in the restive town of Ersal near the Syrian border. The group has previously executed one captive Lebanese soldier.

The latest threat, issued via the group's Twitter account, came after two previous warnings on Sunday, which it apparently backtracked on.

Both Nusra and jihadists from the rival ISIS group captured 30 Lebanese soldiers and police in August near Ersal.

ISIS has also beheaded two Lebanese soldier since August.

Nusra has previously demanded that in return for the release of its prisoners, resistance group Hezbollah should end its intervention in Syria on the side of the Syrian army and President Bashar al-Assad's government and that Lebanon free jailed Islamists.

The Lebanese government has so far rejected the terms.

Civilians fled their homes

Meanwhile, thousands of civilians fled their homes Sunday in a battered district of northern Lebanon's Tripoli, taking advantage of an informal truce in fighting between the army and Islamist militants.

An AFP journalist in Tripoli reported the lull in fighting after three days of heavy clashes in Tripoli, the country's second biggest city, even as the army vowed to crush the militants.

After pleas from residents and mediation by clerics, the army allowed thousands of civilians who had been caught in the crossfire for hours to flee Bab al-Tabbaneh.

The AFP journalist on the spot described chaotic scenes as people of all ages left their ravaged neighborhood.

Many of the women walked out in their pyjamas, crying as they and the men were searched by army and intelligence troops.

Men carried out children and elderly people too weak to walk.

Five wounded civilians and dozens of people suffering from illness were evacuated in Red Cross ambulances.

Many went to stay with relatives. Others were put up in schools, which the authorities said would be closed on Monday, along with universities, because of the violence.

An NNA correspondent in Tripoli reported Sunday evening that civilians headed to safer neighborhoods, namely in al-Qubbah, Abu Samra and Zahrieh, for fear of renewed fighting.

Bab al-Tabbaneh is home to some 100,000 people, while the parts of the neighborhood where the fighting is worse is usually inhabited by some 15,000.

The AFP journalist said that even in areas far from the fighting, the streets were empty, with people too fearful to leave their homes.

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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