Lebanese soldiers have taken control of a Tripoli neighbourhood, once a base for al-Qaeda-inspired fighters, after three days of fierce fighting that killed at least 16 and forced thousands to flee.
The fighting was the deadliest bout of Syria-related violence in Lebanon’s second city since the 2011 outbreak of the civil war in Syria, leaving 11 soldiers and eight civilians dead between Friday and Sunday. Twenty-two fighters were also killed, security officials said.
It was also the first to pit rebels, blamed for attacks on military posts, against the army in Tripoli. The fighting caused major damage to the impoverished Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh, which fighters had used as their stronghold.
On Monday morning, the army was in full control of the rebel bastion as troops moved in without facing any resistance, a military spokesman told AFP news agency.
“The army has taken over Bab al-Tabbaneh,” said the spokesman, adding that troops had captured 162 fighters since Friday.
The army urged other fighters still at large to turn themselves in.
The soldiers carried out house-to-house searches and made several weapons seizures.
A 72-year-old woman said she had never before been forced out of Bab al-Tabbaneh, “not even during the civil war. But this time, I had to flee my house, along with my five grandchildren. I am in charge of them, because their father is in jail”, said Umm Mohammed Jaaburi. “The violence was unprecedented,” she said.
Washington praised the courage of the soldiers involved in the clashes, while also backing the Lebanese government.
“We condemn those who seek to sow chaos in Lebanon and are confident that the Lebanese people will persevere if they stand united in the face of this threat,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
In August, a deadly battle in the Sunni enclave of Arsal near the Syrian border ended with fighters who had streamed into Lebanon from Syria withdrawing after a truce, while taking hostage 30 soldiers and policemen.
Three of those soldiers have since been executed, and Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front had threatened to kill a fourth because of the Tripoli violence.
The group issued a statement later on Monday saying it had decided to “stop the killing” of the soldier after fighting in Tripoli subsided.
The country’s health minister told Reuters on Tuesday that negotiations were ongoing to prevent the killing of two captured soldiers.
“We received a specific request from the kidnappers in exchange for halting the execution of the soldiers … Matters are going in a positive direction,” Wael Abu Faour said, without giving details on the demand.