Clashes in northern Lebanese city of Tripoli raise fears of an escalation of sectarian tensions in Lebanon.
Gunbattles between pro- and anti-Syrian groups in northern Lebanon killed at least seven people and wounded 22 on Saturday, security officials said, as activists reported fresh shelling in a region in central Syria where a massacre last week left more than 100 people dead.
The clashes were the latest to hit the Lebanese port of Tripoli. Repeated outbreaks of violence in the city, the country’s second largest, are seen as spillover from the conflict in neighboring Syria and have raised fears of an escalation in sectarian tensions in Lebanon.
The fighting in Tripoli started shortly before midnight Friday and intensified Saturday, the officials said on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Lebanon and Syria share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, which are easily enflamed. Clashes in Tripoli last month killed at least eight people.
The conflict pits Sunni Muslims who support Syrian rebels trying to oust President Bashar Assad against members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam of which Assad is a member.
Smoke was seen billowing from several apartments near the city’s Syria street, the dividing line between the mainly Sunni Bab Tabbaneh neighborhood and the adjacent, Alawite-majority Jabal Mohsen. The area around Syria street was mostly empty and gunmen were roaming the streets.
“We are being targeted because we support the Syrian people,” a Sunni gunman told Associated Press Television. “We are with you (Syrian people) and will not abandon you.”
In Syria, activists said government troops fired shells at Houla, a cluster of farming villages in the central province of Homs where the UN says at least 108 people – including 49 children under the age of ten – were killed on May 25.
The opposition and the government have exchanged accusations over the massacre, each blaming the other.
Syria has come under deep international isolation since its forces launched a ferocious crackdown on dissent nearly 15 months ago, but the Houla massacre has brought a new urgency to calls to end the crisis.
In Qatar, the head of Syria’s largest exile opposition group said Saturday he would welcome Arab military action aimed at bringing a halt to attacks by Assad’s regime against Syrian rebel forces and civilians.
Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of the Syrian National Council, made the comments before a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers, who discussed the bloodshed in Syria, including the Houla massacre.
Gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have pledged funds to aid Syria’s rebels, but there is no direct evidence that the money is reaching anti-Assad forces or that the rebels are becoming better armed. The Arab League, however, does not appear ready to deploy its own troops.
After the meeting, the ministers issued a statement calling on the Arab world’s two main satellite operators, Saudi Arabia-hosted Arabsat and Egypt’s Nilesat, to suspend the broadcasting of Syria’s state-run and private television stations.
The move, which would block the regime’s ability to push its version of the uprising, is seen as another step by the Arab League to pressure Damascus, which was suspended from the 22-member bloc last year.
Syrian state TV quickly responded, saying the move is “part of the aggression against Syria and aims to silence the voice of its people.” It added that the decision aims to “conceal the facts of what is going on in Syria.”
With violence continuing despite nearly 300-strong UN observers on the ground in Syria, League chief Nabil Elaraby suggested that the monitors’ mission shift into a peacekeeping one.
“What is needed today is not only observing and investigating but supervising that the violence stops,” Elaraby told the meeting. “One of the alternatives could be amending the authorization regarding the observers so that they become a peacekeeping force.”
The deployment of unarmed UN observers is part of international envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan, which includes a cease-fire that is to lead to talks between the regime and its opponents. The truce has never really taken hold, although world leaders continue to pin their hopes on it, in part because there is little appetite in the West for a Libya-style intervention.
Annan warned Arab officials in Qatar that “the specter of all-out civil war, with a worrying sectarian dimension, grows by the day,” in Syria, and added that the crisis is spilling over to neighboring countries, an apparent reference to Lebanon.
He called for the immediate implementation of his peace plan.
On Friday night, state TV aired interviews with two witnesses from Houla who said the victims of the massacres were members of families that support the government and did not take part in anti-Assad protests. The names and faces of witnesses were not made public for their own safety, according to the station.
Those statements contradicted accounts of witnesses who blamed “shabiha” or the shadowy gunmen who operate on behalf of Assad’s regime. The UN also said it had strong suspicions those pro-regime gunmen were responsible for much of the bloodshed in Houla.
In Brussels, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Saturday there should be no amnesty for crimes committed in Syria, even if potential prosecution might motivate members of the regime to cling to power at all costs.
Pillay spoke a day after the Human Rights Council voted overwhelmingly to condemn Syria over the slaughter in Houla.
Since the massacre occurred, activists have reported that government troops have shelled the area almost daily. They say many residents have the area for fear of a new massacre.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the shelling concentrated on the village of Tal Dahab in Houla.
The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees also reported shelling and clashes between troops and rebels in the central city of Homs, the southern province of Daraa and some suburbs of the capital Damascus.
Activists say as many as 13,000 people have died in Assad’s crackdown against the anti-government uprising, which began in March 2011 amid the Arab Spring. One year after the revolt began, the UN put the toll at 9,000, but many hundreds more have died since.