TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) — The Lebanese government authorized the army on Monday to take control of the northern city of Tripoli for six months following three days of sectarian clashes, a decision meant to allay fears that fighting in Lebanon's second largest city was spiraling out of control.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati made the announcement after a high level security meeting at the presidential palace, saying the army has been empowered to take necessary security measures to keep the peace in Tripoli.
The army, he added, would carry out patrols and implement arrest warrants issued for fugitives in the city.
Security officials say 12 people have been killed and more than a hundred wounded in Tripoli since Saturday, when the latest round of violence erupted. Sectarian clashes linked to the war in neighboring Syria often flare there between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The fighting is concentrated between two impoverished rival neighborhoods in the port city. The Bab Tabbaneh district is largely Sunni Muslim, as are most of the Syrian rebels fighting against President Bashar Assad's rule. Residents of Jabal Mohsen, a neighborhood perched on a hill, are mostly of Assad's Alawite sect.
But the fighting in the past few days has taken on a more ominous turn, spreading to include other parts of the city as snipers took up positions on rooftops and gunbattles and rocket fire raged out of control.
Fighting began Saturday after Sunni gunmen shot a man whose brother controls an Alawite militia, sparking gun battles that trapped children in schools and forced traders to flee their shops.
Fighters used rocket-propelled grenades to target their rivals in the crowded neighborhoods. On Monday, schools, universities banks and other businesses were mostly shuttered and streets deserted as occasional sounds of gun battles rang out.
In Syria, fighting continued for control of an ancient, pro-government Christian village about 60 kilometers (40 miles) northeast of Damascus.
The government said six nuns were trapped in the village of Maaloula, after al-Qaida linked rebels seized large swaths of the area. Syrian army tanks were positioned around it as the fighting sent smoke wafting over the scenic village, nestled into hillsides.
Forces loyal to Assad are trying to keep rebels led by the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, from advancing. Opposition fighters have taken control of several parts of the village since blowing up a checkpoint at its entrance on Friday, according to reports by the state news agency and opposition activists.
The fighting is part of a wider battle over a string of towns and villages in the rugged Qalamoun border region in an effort to control a strategic highway and smuggling routes from neighboring Lebanon. The town had been firmly in the government's grip but surrounded by rebel-held territory until Friday.
Five nuns and Mother Superior Pelagia Sayaf were trapped in the Mar Takla Convent, which sits above Maaloula, according to SANA.
Syria's Minister of Social Affairs, Kindah al-Shammat, demanded that countries supporting the rebels pressure them to release the nuns.
Many of the some 3,000 residents have already fled to Damascus, fearing rebels would punish them for supporting Assad and because they are Christians, one of the villagers said in a telephone interview. He spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for his safety. Others have taken shelter in the convent.
While two bishops and a priest have been kidnapped by rebels, no nuns have been reported harmed in the three-year conflict, which began as a popular uprising against Assad but later deteriorated into a civil war.
Syria's minorities, including Christians, have mostly sided with Assad or remained neutral, fearing for their fate if rebels, dominated by Islamic extremists, come to power.
In the past, rebels have seized parts of Maaloula only to be driven out within a few days by government forces.
Maaloula was a major tourist attraction before the conflict began in March 2011. Some of its residents still speak a version of Aramaic, a biblical language spoken by Jesus.
AP writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Diaa Hadid in Beirut contributed to this report.