Residents of two rival neighbourhoods in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli cowered in fear on Monday as fresh sectarian clashes erupted linked to the unrest in neighbouring Syria.
“I am hiding to protect my three kids,” said Fatima Ali, 29, who was among three women and 15 children sheltered in the back of a house in Bab al-Tebbaneh, an impoverished area of the port city populated mainly by Sunni Muslims opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Her 11-year-old daughter Aisha appeared terrified at the sounds of heavy gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades exploding outside.
“I’m really scared,” said the bespectacled girl in a low voice. “My tummy hurts, my head hurts and I am shaking. Every time a shell explodes, I scream.”
Bab al-Tebbaneh sits opposite Jabal Mohsen, where the majority of residents are from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Assad’s family belongs.
Tension between the two neighbourhoods has been rife for years and has come to a head several times since the revolt against Assad’s regime broke out in March 2011.
The latest troubles erupted at the weekend after Lebanese security forces arrested Shadi al-Mawlawi, a Sunni Islamist, on charges of belonging to a terrorist organisation.
Mawlawi’s supporters say he was targeted because of his help for Syrian refugees fleeing to Lebanon.
The ensuing sectarian clashes have left five people dead, including two on Monday, and nearly 50 wounded, prompting many people to flee the two rival neighbourhoods.
Shops and businesses were shut down in and around the two areas on Monday as residents braced for an escalation.
Ali Fidda, a local Alawite official in Jabal Mohsen, told AFP he feared the situation could get out of hand.
“We don’t understand why this is happening,” he said. “What do we have to do with the guy who was arrested? All the Islamist extremists have come together against us … and we are worried it is going to get worse.”
Gharib al-Sham, an Islamist militant from Bab al-Tebbaneh, accused the Lebanese army of stoking the unrest and of siding with the Damascus regime.
“Why do you want to kill your brothers?” he asked, as he stood near the frontline in Bab al-Tebbaneh carrying a semi-automatic weapon and sporting a long beard.
“The army should stand with us and not with the Syrian regime,” he added.
Jawfar Budeif, 45, another militant with a black bandana on his head, proudly showed off three grenades he had just bought and said he had more than 1,000 bullets ready for use to defend his community.
His 18-year-old son Mohamed stood nearby armed with a new Kalashnikov.
“There might be a sectarian war in Tripoli and beyond,” warned Budeif. “The Lebanese army is supposed to defend its people but it has turned its guns on them.”
Radical Islamist cleric Omar Bakri said it was clear that the aim of Mawlawi’s arrest was to ease the pressure on the Damascus regime and switch the focus to Lebanon.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni Muslim from Tripoli, met with religious leaders in the city on Sunday and appealed for calm as did Islamic leaders.
Since the outbreak of the revolt in Syria, spillovers have been feared in Lebanon, where the government is dominated by a pro-Damascus coalition led by the powerful Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
Tripoli is a conservative, mainly Sunni city where many activists and opponents of the Assad regime have sought refuge. Syrian authorities charge that arms and fighters are being smuggled in from Lebanon to help rebels.