The government authorized the army Monday to take charge of security in Lebanon’s second-largest city of Tripoli for six months following deadly sectarian clashes by rival sides stemming from the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Many fear that the violence in Tripoli — only 18 miles from the Syrian border — could tip the rest of Lebanon back toward chaos. At least 12 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in the latest fighting that broke out Saturday.
The decision by caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati after a high-level security meeting at the presidential palace is meant to allay fears that the fighting was spreading out of control in the northern port city. But the army is weak and has been largely unable to stop the violence. Dozens of soldiers have been killed and wounded in Tripoli this year, often caught in the crossfire between rival gunmen.
Sectarian clashes linked to the war in Syria often flare in Tripoli between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Lebanon is divided into a patchwork of sects, including Sunnis, Shiites and Christians. Syria’s rebels are dominated by its Sunni Muslim majority, and Lebanese Sunnis mostly support their brethren across the border, while Lebanese Shiites have staked their future with the Assad regime. The Lebanese Shiite group Hizbullah has played a critical role in recent battlefield victories for forces loyal to Assad.
The fighting in Tripoli is concentrated between two impoverished, rival neighborhoods. The Bab Tabbaneh district is largely Sunni Muslim, as are most of the Syrian rebels fighting Assad’s rule. Residents of Jabal Mohsen, a neighborhood perched on a hill, are mostly from his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
But the violence in recent days has taken a more ominous turn, spreading to include other parts of Tripoli as snipers took up positions on rooftops, and gunbattles and rocket fire raged out of control.
Meanwhile Monday, the U.N.’s top human rights official said a growing body of evidence collected by U.N. investigators points to the involvement of senior Syrian officials, including Assad, in crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Navi Pillay, who heads the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said “the scale and viciousness of the abuses being perpetrated by elements on both sides almost defies belief.” She said the abuses — including suspected massacres, chemical attacks, and torture are being well-documented by an expert U.N. panel of investigators.