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Lebanese army push into militant stronghold in Tripoli

Tanks and helicopters are deployed in bid to wrestle back city from Sunni militants allied with al-Qaeda
A Lebanese soldier carries bullets after the clashes between troops and masked gunmen in Tripoli (AA)

Lebanese army units, backed by tanks and helicopters, made a new push Monday to drive out al-Qaeda linked militants from a neighbourhood in Lebanon’s second largest city where recent clashes have threatened the country’s tenuous stability.

The army sealed off entrances to Tripoli’s fruit and vegetable market as ground troops prepared to storm the stronghold of two military commanders aligned with al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front, who have carried out attacks on army positions and kidnapped Lebanese soldiers.

Troops were seen setting up checkpoints across Tripoli early on Monday and advancing toward the heart of the Bab al-Tabbaneh near the vegetable market, a restive and predominantly Sunni neighbourhood which is home to many supporters of the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Fighters in the neighbourhood have clashed regularly with residents from the adjacent Jabal Mohsen neighborhood, who largely hail from the same Alawite sect — an offshoot of Shiite Islam — as the Assad family.

Tripoli, an impoverished city of predominantly Sunni Muslims experiences regular unrest between rival neighbourhoods, but has seen tensions flare up as a result of the more than three-year-old Syrian conflict. Since Friday, five civilians and 11 soldiers have been killed since Friday.

The violence, which has seen mortar fire pound residential areas and thousands of civilians flee their homes, is the worst in months and appears to have been triggered by the arrest Thursday of a militant, identified as Ahmad Salim Mikati. According to local The Daily Star newspaper, Mikati is wanted in connection with the kidnapping and killing of Lebanese soldiers.

Execution threat

Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate meanwhile decided to delay the execution of a Lebanese soldier it captured in August during a bloody battle in restive Arsal unless the army halts its Tripoli operations.

The latest threat, issued via the group's Twitter account, came after two previous warnings on Sunday, which it apparently backtracked on.

Both al-Nusra and rival Islamic State group militants, captured 30 Lebanese soldiers and police in August around the eastern town of Arsal, close to the Syrian border.

They have since executed three of them.

Al-Nusra has previously demanded that in return for the release of its prisoners, Hezbollah end its intervention in Syria on the side of President Assad and that Lebanon free prisoners with links to al-Qaeda and other groups.

The Lebanese government has so far rejected the terms, although it has been negotiating for the release of the soldiers.

Islamist gunmen in Tripoli have carried out repeated attacks against the army, accusing it of cooperating with Hezbollah.

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