TRIPOLI Lebanon (Reuters) - The Lebanese army took the last position held by Islamist militants in the northern city of Tripoli on Monday, ending two days of battles that marked some of the worst fighting to spill over into Lebanon from the Syrian civil war next door.
Guns fell silent as the army issued a statement saying fighters who had fled should turn themselves in or be hunted down. A security official said the city had been secured and 162 militants arrested.
At least 11 soldiers, eight civilians and 22 militants have died in the fighting in the predominantly Sunni Muslim city where hostilities linked to Syria’s civil war have erupted repeatedly in the last three years.
“The operation is over and the army is entering areas where the gunmen were entrenched in order to clear them,” Samir Jisr, a Sunni politician from Tripoli, told Reuters.
The fighting marks the worst spillover of Syria-related violence into Lebanon since early August, when Islamist insurgents affiliated to the Nusra Front and Islamic State staged an incursion into the border town of Arsal and took around 20 soldiers captive.
Three have been executed and the Nusra Front has threatened to kill a fourth in response to the army operation in Tripoli.
The latest fighting erupted after an army raid on a militant hideout last Thursday. The detained leader of the cell has told investigators its plan was to set up a safe haven for Islamist militants in villages near Tripoli, security sources said.
Lebanese officials fear Islamist insurgents from the Syrian civil war are trying to expand their influence into Sunni areas of northern Lebanon. With the onset of winter, they see a rising threat from insurgents based in the mountainous border area who may try to open up new supply routes between Syria and Lebanon.
The Syrian war has triggered Lebanon’s worst instability since its own 1975-90 civil war. There have been several bouts of fighting in Tripoli since the Syria war erupted in 2011.
Political conflict has left Lebanon without a president since February when Michel Suleiman’s term expired.
The area taken by the army on Monday included a mosque being used as a base by the gunmen in the Bab al-Tabbaneh district. Hundreds of families left the neighborhood under a humanitarian ceasefire requested by local Sunni leaders.
A brief gunfight ensued as soldiers entered and started to comb the area. Security sources said some of the gunmen may have left with the civilians and others could have gone into hiding.
The fighting, some of the worst Tripoli has seen since the Lebanese civil war, caused damage to parts of the historic Old City. Some shops in the ancient souk had been completely destroyed, said Tawfik Debousi, head of a local trade association. “The whole area is historic,” he told Reuters.
The fighting also engulfed areas outside Tripoli near the towns of al-Minya and Bahneen, where at least two soldiers were killed in an ambush. The army used helicopter gunships to fire at militant positions for the first time in recent years.
Fighting in Syria has divided its smaller neighbor along sectarian lines, with Sunnis supporting Syrian rebels and Shi‘ites backing President Bashar al-Assad. Hardline Islamists have also won a degree of support among Lebanese Sunnis, though Sunni leaders say such groups have no major backing in Lebanon.
Lebanese security officials say another concern is support for militants among the Syrian refugees who number 1.1 million in Lebanon according to U.N. figures.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam, the most senior Sunni in the Lebanese government, met ministers and security officials on Monday and said “it was necessary to continue the confrontation”, his office said in a statement.
“The government stands united behind the legitimate military security forces in the battle they are fighting to strike the terrorists and restore security to Tripoli and the north.”
Politicians across Lebanon’s political field condemned the violence in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city and a historic base for Sunni Islamist groups.
The precise affiliations of all the fighters taking part in the clashes were not immediately clear. Security sources say they include both Lebanese and Syrian supporters of the hardline Sunni Islamist groups Islamic State and the Nusra Front.
The Nusra Front is the Syrian affiliate of al Qaeda. Islamic State is an al Qaeda offshoot that controls swathes of both Syria and Iraq, targeted by a U.S.-led campaign of air strikes in those two countries.
Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk said in remarks published on Monday that the Tripoli gunmen numbered no more than 200 and were from both Lebanon and Syria.
Many Sunni Syrian rebels and hardline Lebanese Sunni Islamists accuse Lebanon’s army of working with the Lebanese Shi‘ite movement Hezbollah, which has sent fighters to aid Assad, a member of the Shi‘ite-derived Alawite minority.
Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Peter Graff and Giles Elgood