Two people were killed when fighting erupted overnight in the Lebanese city of Tripoli between members of the Alawite minority loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and members of the Sunni majority, witnesses and security officials said on Sunday.
Rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles were used in the fighting in an Alawite enclave and surrounding Sunni neighborhoods in the port city, 70 km (44 miles) north of Beirut.
“The clashes peaked at dawn. The sound of gunfire is still echoing in the city,” a Lebanese security official said.
The fighting underlines how sectarian tensions in Syria could spill over to neighboring Lebanon.
A small Alawite minority are concentrated in Tripoli, a conservative Sunni city where many residents have been enraged by Assad’s crackdown on the 14-month revolt against 42 years of rule by the Assad family and their Alawite establishment.
Syria’s Sunni majority are at the forefront of the uprising against Assad, whose sect is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
Hours before the clashes, Lebanese troops exchanged fire late Saturday with a group of young Islamists protesting in Tripoli for the release of a terrorism suspect.
The outbreak of gunfire between the Islamists and the army happened as the youths, sympathizers with the ongoing revolt in Syria, tried to approach the offices of the pro-Assad Syrian Social Nationalist Party.
Earlier Saturday, around 100 young men, mostly Islamists, blocked the northern and southern roads into Tripoli , demanding the release of a fellow resident accused of terrorism.
The protesters set up camp at the southern entrance of Tripoli, the largest city in northern Lebanon.
Black flags bearing the profession of Islam, “God is Great”, were planted alongside the Syrian flag of independence, a symbol of revolt in the neighboring country.
“We will not leave until my brother is released,” Nizar al-Mawlawi, whose 27-year-old brother Shadi was arrested by Lebanese security forces on Saturday.
According to a statement from the Lebanese security services, Shadi al-Mawlawi was arrested as part of an “investigation into his ties to a terrorist organization,” without going into details.
Syrian authorities have repeatedly charged that arms and fighters are being smuggled in from Lebanon to help the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad.
Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon under international pressure in 2005 after a 29-year presence, but Assad retains big influence in the small but geopolitically important country through his main ally, the Shi’ite guerrilla group Hezbollah, the only Lebanese party that has an officially approved arsenal.