- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2008

BEIRUT | Sectarian clashes in northern Lebanon continued for a second day on Saturday, killing three people and wounding 27, security officials said.

The city of Tripoli has seen fierce clashes between pro-government Sunni Muslim gunmen and Alawite fighters, a small offshoot Shi’ite Islam allied with the Lebanese opposition and Syria. Nine people have been killed and 42 wounded in the past two days, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the media.

Tension has been high along Lebanon’s religious and political fault lines since the militant Shi’ite Hezbollah group overran parts of Beirut in May in response to government attempts to limit its power.

Under an Arab-brokered deal later that month, Hezbollah and its opposition allies joined a national unity government headed by Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Siniora but earned veto power over its decisions.

A cease-fire mediated by the grand mufti of northern Lebanon, Sheik Malek al-Shaar, failed to take hold Friday as gunmen in Tripoli’s Sunni Bab el-Tabaneh district exchanged automatic rifle fire and rocket-propelled grenades with gunmen in the predominantly Alawite Jabal Mohsen neighborhood.

Fighting came to a halt shortly before midday Saturday when Lebanese soldiers and policemen began fanning out in Tripoli, taking up positions between rival neighborhoods to prevent more hostilities.

However, sporadic gunfire could still be heard, local TV stations reported.

National police commander Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi said the army and police were under orders from President Michel Suleiman and Mr. Siniora to deal firmly with any troublemaker in the city. He said the army and internal security forces have brought in reinforcements to impose law and order and protect civilians.

“The army will respond to any source of fire and will arrest any gunman,” Gen. Rifi told reporters.

Interior Minister Ziad Baroud said the army and police were fully coordinating their efforts to act “firmly and decisively” to maintain law and order in Tripoli.

Earlier this month, five people were killed in similar sectarian fighting in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city. Another nine people died in the same neighborhoods last month before government forces deployed there.

The clashes in Tripoli, located 50 miles north of Beirut, occurred as the new government was struggling to draft a document outlining plans for its term in office amid disagreements with Hezbollah over the fate of its weapons.

Lebanon’s Western-backed and anti-Syrian factions say the job of defending Lebanon should fall to the national armed forces. Hezbollah and its Syrian-backed allies counter that the militant group’s weapons are needed to defend the country against Israel.

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