Middle East

Lebanon army steps up Tripoli battle against militants

Lebanese troops in Tripoli - 26 October
Image caption Sunni militants accuse the army of siding with their Shia opponents

The Lebanese army has launched a fierce assault against Sunni militants in Tripoli, forcing a retreat from the Old City on a third day of fighting.

The battle has now shifted to a Sunni neighbourhood, where the army is using tanks and armoured vehicles.

At least five soldiers and two civilians have died in the fighting.

The militants, thought to be linked to Islamic State and al-Qaeda, threatened to kill soldiers they have captured unless the army halts its operations.

"We warn the Lebanese army against any military escalation targeting Sunnis in Tripoli," the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, said in a statement quoted by AFP news agency.

"We call on it to lift its siege and accept a peaceful solution, or else we will be forced in the coming hours to bring closure to the issue of the soldiers we are holding hostage, given that they are prisoners of war."

Media captionIt was the first time fighting has erupted in Tripoli's ancient bazaar, as Jim Muir reports

Sectarian divide

The clashes erupted on Friday after an incident in an outlying village the day before in which three militants allegedly linked to IS were killed.

There have been several bouts of fighting in Tripoli since war broke out in Syria, but this was the first time the militants had occupied the Old City, its historic heart.

On Saturday fighting raged in the Old City's bazaar, a candidate for Unesco world heritage status. By the end of the day, the army said it had arrested a number of armed men there and seized weapons and ammunition.

Reports on Sunday said the militants had now retreated into the Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh neighbourhood, after government troops including commandos attacked with tanks and armoured vehicles.

The state-run National News Agency said the troops had also taken control of the northern suburb of al-Minya.

Image caption Troops are trying to flush out the militants
Image caption Civilians have been fleeing the fighting

The BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut says that Tripoli, like the rest of the country, is sharply divided along largely sectarian lines between supporters and opponents of the regime in Syria.

The militants fighting in Tripoli accuse the army of siding with the Shia Hezbollah movement, a key supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, our correspondent says.

On Friday, Lebanon announced it would no longer accept refugees from war-torn Syria, saying it had reached saturation point.

Lebanon has taken in 1.1 million Syrians despite having a total population of only just over four million.