Army Deploys in Tripoli's Souks, Pursues Gunmen after Clashes Kill at Least 4, Wound 20
Several civilians and troops were killed as 20 soldiers and civilians were wounded in armed clashes in the old souks of the northern city of Tripoli that erupted Friday evening and continued until Saturday afternoon.
In the evening, the army said its units completed their deployment in the old souks and the al-Zahriyeh neighborhood after arresting several gunmen and wounding many others.
“Quantities of arms, ammunition and explosives were seized in their possession, while a number of militants fled from the area and army units are pursuing them in order to arrest them,” the army added.
Later on Saturday, state-run National News Agency said "an exchange of gunfire erupted between the army and gunmen near al-Walid supermarket in Bab al-Tabbaneh."
And MTV said "the clashes zone has expanded in Bab al-Tabbaneh."
Voice of Lebanon radio (93.3) said gunmen opened fire at an army post at the Abu Ali roundabout near Bab al-Tabbaneh and “the clash lasted for around 10 minutes without causing any casualties.”
MTV meanwhile said heavy gunfire targeted the Hariri residential complex in al-Qobbeh, noting that the army brought reinforcements from outside Tripoli.
It later said a shell landed in Bab al-Tabbaneh as gunmen fired another shell at an army post at the Abu Ali roundabout.
“The army is clashing with an armed group in the center of al-Mallouleh in Tripoli,” it reported.
Al-Jadeed TV said “a hand grenade was hurled as several volleys of machinegun fire were heard in Bab al-Tabbaneh.”
Meanwhile, the National News Agency said an armed group kidnapped the soldier Tannous Nehme as he was passing through Bab al-Tabbaneh in a taxi.
It said he lives in the northern region of Bsharri and serves at the Officers Club in Jounieh.
The gunmen demanded “an end to the siege imposed on them in return for his release,” NNA said.
Cautious calm had engulfed the old souks after a mediation by the Muslim Scholars Committee led to the withdrawal of the militants from the streets, NNA said.
But military sources stressed to LBCI TV that the army will press on with the battle against the gunmen regardless of “what some parties are trying to do.”
The fighting has resulted in the death of Tripoli residents Abdul Nasser al-Masri and his son Taha and the wounding of six civilians and 13 troops including an officer, according to NNA.
The Army Command issued a statement announcing the names of an officer and five troops killed in the clashes in Tripoli and the nearby northern region of Minieh.
It identified them as First Lieutenant Firas Mahmoud al-Hakim, Sergeant Mohammed Ali Noon, the soldiers Ahmed Saeed Asaad and Mohammed Ali Yassine, and the conscripts Abbas Haidar Ibrahim and Jaafar Ali Asaad.
At least two militants have been killed in the clashes, with MTV reporting that “the bodies of two gunmen have been found in Tripoli's souks.”
A security source had told Agence France-Presse that six militants have been wounded in the battles.
In a statement, the army stressed that it will press on with its military operation “until the gunmen are eradicated and all armed appearances are prevented in Tripoli.”
It called on citizens to “fully comply with the measures that are being implemented by army units and to report any suspicious behavior to the military posts.”
In a sign of its determination to continue the crackdown, the army said it raided “the house of detained terrorist Ahmed Salim Miqati, aka Abu Bakr and Abu al-Huda, seizing a large of quantity of explosives.”
“A military expert is dismantling them in order to transfer them to a safe location where they will be detonated later on,” the army added.
And in another statement, the military announced that its forces stormed “the house of fugitive terrorist Rabih al-Shami in the Daftardar area, where he was arrested and quantities of arms, ammunition and communication devices were seized.”
“A store containing medical supplies which the gunmen had been using to treat their wounded” was also raided at al-Shami's house, the army said.
The lull in the fighting allowed TV reporters to enter the old souks around 3:00 p.m. and broadcast live footage from the clashes-hit area.
“Following contacts with Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi and the city's leaders, the Muslim Scholars Committee called on journalists to enter the clashes zone and broadcast footage proving that the gunmen have withdrawn from the streets,” NNA said.
But the Army Command underlined in a phone call with the same agency that the battle “of pursuing the terrorist gunmen in Tripoli will continue and there will be no retreat before the terrorists are eradicated.”
“The battle in Tripoli will continue and we have nothing to do with what some parties are doing. We will open fire at the gunmen once we spot them and we won't show them any tolerance,” a military source told LBCI.
The clashes had renewed in the morning after easing off for several hours during the night.
The gunbattle initially erupted in the old souks and extended to other areas.
NNA said the army clashed with gunmen in the city's souks area as soldiers besieged the armed men.
The army brought reinforcements to the areas of clashes and blocked all roads leading to the markets.
A Lebanese army surveillance plane also flew over the area.
Heavy shelling and gunfire was reportedly heard as the army launched its assault on the gunmen's positions.
Troops attempted to evacuate families trapped inside the market, where many of the shops have been burned down in the fighting.
The battles caused extensive material damage to shops, buildings and vehicles.
Rocket-propelled grenades and heavy, medium and light arms were used in the clashes.
“Terrorists are seeking to destabilize the situation in Tripoli and create incitement and sectarian strife,” the army said in a communique on Saturday.
The statement pointed out that the army “is carrying out raids in suspicious areas to apprehend gunmen and refer them to the competent judiciary.”
The military added that eight soldier were wounded in the clashes including a lieutenant.
NNA denied media reports that gunmen stormed a church in the area and attacked army units outside the city's internal markets.
The news agency reported that the gunmen who are battling the army are linked to the Islamic State extremist group, pointing out that the army inflicted severe losses on the armed groups.
It added that the armed men called for help from other jihadists, including al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front, but no group answered the call.
Mufti of Tripoli and the North Sheikh Malek al-Shaar postponed on Saturday a Muslim-Christian spiritual meeting that was set to be held in Tripoli in the upcoming days.
“The National Tripoli Gathering” was planned to stress the “unity of the people on the national principles.”
The army has been facing rising assaults in Tripoli recently following the gunbattles between troops and Sunni jihadists who overran the northeastern border town of Arsal in August.
A meeting was later held at the residence of Shaar for the city's prominent figures, including former Prime Minister Najib Miqati, ex-Minister Ahmed Karami and MP Mohammed Kabbara.
Shaar stressed after the meeting that the residents of Tripoli “support the army's security plan in the city, which wants to stay under the authority of the state.”
“Tripoli is our first concern,” the mufti said, expressing hope that calm would prevail soon.
For his part, ex-PM Miqati hailed the postponement of the conference, describing it as a “wise” move.
He pointed out that Prime Minister Tammam Salam was contacted in order to discuss the upcoming measures that would restore calm in Tripoli.
Shaar called on the Higher Relief Council to help those who were affected by the clashes.
Justice Minister Rifi later said in a press conference that gunmen will not enjoy any political cover, stressing that Tripoli supports the state and will overcome threats.
“We will not slip into chaos,” Rifi pointed out.
The minister, who stressed the importance of coexistence in Tripoli, noted that the city will not be turned into a “military zone.”
Ever since the war in neighboring Syria broke out in 2011, Tripoli has been the scene of regular fighting between Sunni militants and members of Lebanon's Alawite minority.
Islamist gunmen have also turned on the Lebanese army, accusing it of targeting Sunnis and of cooperating with Hizbullah.