TRIPOLI Lebanon (Reuters) - Lebanese soldiers battled Islamist gunmen across northern Lebanon for a third day on Sunday in the worst fighting linked to the civil war in neighboring Syria since militants briefly seized a border town in the summer.
Four soldiers died in Sunday’s clashes, bringing the total killed to 10 since militants began fighting the army on Friday following an army raid on a militant cell in northern Lebanon.
Seven civilians and about 12 militants have also been killed, security sources say, and dozens wounded. The army has fought street battles in the northern city of Tripoli’s historic Old City and fired on militants from helicopters.
Politicians across Lebanon’s deeply divided political field have condemned the violence, but by late Sunday there was no sign the fighting was coming to a close.
The violence also briefly spread to Arsal, the town on the Syrian frontier in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley where militants fought the Lebanese army over the summer, killing about 20 soldiers before withdrawing with captive soldiers, many of whom are still being held.
Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam called on citizens of Tripoli to support the government during “these difficult times” and said the city would not be abandoned.
“(The government) will not tolerate any attempt to turn back the clock in Tripoli, and will not allow a handful of terrorists and foreigners to take the people of Tripoli hostage,” he said in remarks published by Lebanon’s National News Agency.
Tensions have been high since the Arsal incursion, staged by Islamist militants including some linked to the hardline Islamic State group which is active in Syria and Iraq, as well as to al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front.
The precise affiliations of all the fighters taking part in the clashes in northern Lebanon were unclear, but security sources said they included both Lebanese and Syrian affiliates or supporters of Islamic State and the Nusra Front.
Many Syrian rebels — who are overwhelmingly Sunni — and hardline Lebanese Sunni Islamists accuse Lebanon’s army of working with the Lebanese Shi’ite movement Hezbollah, which has sent fighters to aid Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Shi’ite-derived Alawite minority.
An audio recording attributed to a prominent Tripoli-based Sunni cleric was distributed on Saturday condemning the “repression” it said Sunnis faced in Lebanon and said the operation’s true purpose was to target Sunnis.
“We may be forced to declare a true jihad in all of Lebanon,” it said. Reuters could not verify the recording’s authenticity.
Speaking at a religious event on Saturday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah referenced events in Tripoli, saying they came in the context of broader regional developments. “A major, dangerous project” had been prepared for Tripoli, he said.
On Sunday, the focus of fighting in Tripoli moved from the souks of the Old City to the Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbeneh.
At least two civilians, including a child, were killed. Gunmen also kidnapped a second soldier from his home, security sources said. They had taken another captive on Saturday.
Fighting also erupted in other parts of the north, 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 — a type of attack not previously used by Lebanon’s military during Syria’s 3 1/2-year-old conflict.
The violence is likely to worsen tensions in an already polarized political environment, where power is allotted on the basis on religious sect.
Lebanon has been without a president since May because rival factions - one lead by Shi’ite Hezbollah, the other by Sunnis of the Future Movement - have been unable to agree on a new one.
Both sides accuse the other of trying to use Syria’s conflict to its advantage and of dragging Lebanon further into the war, which has killed some 200,000 people.
Writing by Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Rosalind Russell