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Neighbours in Lebanese city fight Syria proxy war

Filed on May 27, 2013

TRIPOLI (Lebanon) - In a rundown district of Lebanonís second largest city, residents have adapted to waging war with their neighbours.

Whenever violence breaks out, they string large cloths across intersections to block snipers’ view, sleep in hallways to take cover from mortar shells and abandon apartments close to the front line.

The fighting between the two neighbourhoods stretches back four decades to Lebanon’s civil war. But it has become more frequent and increasingly lethal since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. The two districts support opposite sides.

The latest round between Bab Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen over the past week has been the bloodiest yet, leaving at least 28 dead and more than 200 wounded.

Bab Tabbaneh is mostly Sunni, while Jabal Mohsen is home to most of Tripoli’s Alawites.

An 18-year-old with a patchy black beard and a Kalashnikov assault rifle had nothing good to say about Jabal Mohsen. “They don’t fear God, they are bad people,” he said of his neighbours.

The teen said he is one of 10 brothers who have taken up arms, including one who tried to join the Syrian rebels but was captured and killed by Assad’s troops.

In Bab Tabbaneh, many say they are caught in a kind of proxy war between the region’s Sunni and Shia powers. “Their problems are being played out here,” Bab Tabbaneh resident Mohammed Bukhari, 53, said.

Bukhari’s second-floor apartment faces Jabal Mohsen, just a few dozen metres away. On May 19, when fighting broke out again, Bukhari moved with his wife, five children and two grandchildren into an empty apartment facing away from Jabal Mohsen. “My own apartment is very dangerous,” he said, pointing to bullet holes in a wooden cabinet and an interior door. Many leave for safer areas during the fighting.

Those who remain behind try to cope. They’ve strung large sheets of tarpaulin across streets that are otherwise exposed to snipers from Jabal Mohsen, blocking their aim.

Jabal Mohsen sits on a slope above Bab Tabbaneh. The Lebanese army has set up checkpoints around the Alawite neighbourhood. Heading there is risky because of snipers.

Bab Tabbaneh is more safely accessible from the centre of Tripoli. The Lebanese army moved two armoured vehicles to the edge of Bab Tabbaneh over the weekend, but the deployment seemed largely symbolic.

During a visit on Friday, local gunmen controlled the streets.

Some sat in groups on plastic chairs along the sidewalk of Syria Street, a main thoroughfare just a block from Jabal Mohsen. They were on a break, smoking and talking. Most of the fighting takes place after dark, when combatants fire machine guns, mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades at each other.

The fighters offered a range of reasons for shooting at their neighbours, from defending their district to taking revenge for previous bloodshed or letting off steam against Assad and Hezbollah. But beyond inflicting as much pain as possible on the other side, there seemed to be no clear objective to the fighting.

Khaled Shahsheer, a 42-year-old taxi driver wearing camouflage, said unemployment and poverty in Bab Tabbaneh are feeding sectarian tensions.

Two others, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said they are also settling old scores.

“We have a long blood account open with them,” said a 28-year-old money changer with an M-16 sniper rifle. “It’s not just about Qusayr.”

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