TRIPOLI, Lebanon // Guns fell silent in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Monday after two days of deadly battles between the army and Islamist gunmen, some of the worst fighting to spill over into Lebanon from Syria’s civil war next door.
The army said it had taken the militants’ last position in the city’s Bab Al Tabbaneh district, focus of much of the fighting. It issued a statement saying gunmen who had fled should turn themselves in or be hunted down.
At least 11 soldiers, eight civilians and 22 militants have died in the fighting, security officials say.
The quieter morning followed battles overnight between the army and gunmen in areas surrounding Tripoli, a predominantly Sunni Muslim city where fighting linked to Syria’s civil war has erupted several times in the last three years.
“The operation is over and the army is entering areas where the gunmen were entrenched in order to clear them,” Samir Jisr, a Sunni politician from Tripoli, told Reuters.
The fighting marks the worst spillover of Syria-related violence into Lebanon since early August, when Islamist insurgents affiliated to Jabhat Al Nusra and ISIL staged an incursion into the border town of Arsal and took around 20 soldiers captive.
Three have been executed and Al Nusra has threatened to kill a fourth in response to the army operation in Tripoli.
The latest fighting erupted after an army raid on a militant hideout last Thursday. The detained leader of the cell has told investigators its plan was to set up a safe haven for Islamist militants in villages near Tripoli, security sources said.
The Syrian war has triggered Lebanon’s worst instability since its own 1975-90 civil war. There have been several rounds of fighting in Tripoli since the Syria war erupted in 2011.
Political conflict has left Lebanon without a president since February when president Michel Suleiman’s term expired.
Fighting in Syria has divided its smaller neighbour along sectarian lines, with Sunnis supporting Syrian rebels and Shiites backing president Bashar Al Assad. Hardline Islamist groups have won a degree of support among Lebanese Sunnis.
Prime minister Tammam Salam, the most senior Sunni in the Lebanese government, met ministers and security officials on Monday and said “it was necessary to continue the confrontation”, his office said in a statement.
“The government stands united behind the legitimate military security forces in the battle they are fighting to strike the terrorists and restore security to Tripoli and the north.”