TRIPOLI, Lebanon -- Clashes between Sunni Muslim and Alawite militias have killed at least 17 people in this Lebanese city recently in perhaps the worst spillover of violence from the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Tripoli, which is Lebanon's second-largest city and is close to the northern border with Syria, has long been the scene of conflict between Sunni Muslims in the city's Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood and Alawites in the hilltop section of Jabal Mohsen, with each group maintaining militias.
But during the 21-month conflict in Syria, the web of religious and family ties and fault lines between the two countries has created new strains, especially in Tripoli. Lebanese Sunnis have increasingly supported and even joined the Sunni-led uprising against Syria's President Bashar Assad, who is Alawite and whose sect dominates the government. Refugees from both sects have flowed into the city.
As some Tripoli residents begin to see themselves as part of the Syrian conflict -- to the dismay of the Lebanese government, which fears being dragged into the war -- the intensity and frequency of fighting have increased dramatically, with clashes sometimes ignited by events in Syria. Scores have been killed here this year.
The latest conflict began after a number of Sunni fighters from northern Lebanon were killed in an ambush by pro-government forces as they tried to enter Syria to join opposition fighters. Sunnis in Tripoli, angry over videos that purported to show the men's bodies being stabbed and kicked, attacked Alawites, starting days of clashes between militias wielding rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Lebanese news media put the death toll at 17.
Lebanon is divided over Syria, with the parliamentary opposition bloc fiercely opposed to Mr. Assad, and as the Syrian conflict has become more sectarian, so has the Lebanese debate. Many Shiites and Alawites support Mr. Assad and fear that Syria's Sunni majority will take revenge against minorities, while many Lebanese Sunnis, emboldened by the uprising, have struck an aggressive posture toward a government they see as dominated by the Syria-backed Islamist party Hezbollah and weakened by Mr. Assad's troubles.
Sunni fighters from northern Lebanon, including the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood, now routinely cross into Syria to fight. Many link up with Islamist factions like Jabhet al-Nusra, a group the United States is considering declaring a terrorist organization.
Militia leaders in Bab al-Tabbaneh say they frown on their men going to Syria because it leaves them shorthanded for any conflict at home. But it is hard to stop fighters who feel a personal connection to the civil war.
Some of the young men from Bab al-Tabbaneh showed up as corpses in videos circulated on cell phones by rebel supporters. One video showed bodies being repeatedly stabbed with knives. In another, men shouted insults as they kicked and stomped on corpses' heads.
A Sunni militia commander in Bab al-Tabbaneh, who goes by the name Abu Bera, identified one of the men as his friend Hussein Sorour, a 24-year-old baker and fighter.
Even during a lull in fighting Saturday, snipers atop the hill of Jabal Mohsen made streets in Bab al-Tabbaneh unsafe. People traversed the neighborhood by passing through a maze of holes knocked out of walls and crossing alleys with huge tarps strung up to obstruct the view of snipers. One young boy walked down an alley carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle. He said he was 11.
There is a fear that the clashes could spread to other parts of Tripoli. Violence has touched the affluent and usually quiet city center. Rockets and mortars have hit the area more than a dozen times over the past week, said Racha el-Halabi, 19, a university student and journalist.
"It's the first time ever," she said. "Everyone is worried."nation