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(Beirut) – Repeated and sustained violence between armed groups in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli have imposed a deadly and destructive toll on its residents, Human Rights Watch said today. The recent round of violence that began on May 19, 2013, in the Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhoods has killed at least 28, wounded more than 200, and seems to have brought life in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city, to a halt. The dead include at least two Lebanese army soldiers and six members of the armed groups.

Human Rights Watch called on the Lebanese authorities to fulfill their duties to protect the security of residents by deploying and maintaining a greater security presence in the area, and arresting and prosecuting those responsible for violent attacks on residents.

“This latest round of deadly violence shows the failure of the Lebanese authorities’ Band-Aid approach to the conflict in Tripoli,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Tripoli needs to protect residents based on a new commitment by the state to their security and well-being.”

Intermittent violence has intensified between the two neighborhoods since May 2008, with at least 16 different rounds of violence since then. According to residents and armed groups operating in the area, it has become fertile ground for increased violence since the eruption of the conflict in Syria, with sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Alawites exacerbating existing poor protection of social and economic rights and a legacy of grievances between the communities.

Human Rights Watch called on the Lebanese authorities to protect residents by deploying and keeping more security forces in the area, and preventing a new round of violence by seizing weapons from the gunmen, and arresting and prosecuting those responsible for shooting at and shelling residents. Human Rights Watch also called on the government to set up a committee with leaders from both communities to address the underlying historic grievances between the residents and to assess what can be done to address their economic and social rights, including protection and restoration of their homes and other property.

Sectarian tensions between the neighborhoods of Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh, while dating back to Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990), have intensified due to the conflict in Syria. Jabal Mohsen, an area mostly inhabited by Alawites, is strongly pro-Syrian government. The overwhelmingly Sunni neighborhoods surrounding Jabal Mohsen, including Bab al-Tabbaneh, are strongholds for Sunni Islamist fighters, who identify with and support opposition fighters in Syria.

The current clashes, which residents told Human Rights Watch were sparked by tensions over the ongoing battle for the Syrian border-town of al-Qusayr, appear to have drawn in Lebanese fighters both opposing and supporting the Assad government. The clashes are the deadliest since the violence broke out again between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbeneh groups in May 2008.

Sniper fire, Shelling, and Impact on Movement, Education, Health
Human Rights Watch researchers spoke to six injured residents, including one child and one woman, who were still recovering in hospitals in northern Lebanon, and six relatives of some of these and other injured residents. They all described coming under automatic gunfire, sniper fire, as well as rocket-propelled grenade and mortar fire from armed groups in the area.

The first casualty of this violence, Mohammad Ahmad Youssef, an 18-year-old resident from Jabal Mohsen, was taken to a Tripoli hospital at 3:45 p.m. on May 19, where he later died from a bullet wound to his left side, hospital staff told Human Rights Watch. In a telephone interview, a relative told Human Rights Watch that Youssef, who worked as a carpenter, was with his friends at a café when gunmen they thought were from Bab al-Tabbaneh shot at him and his friends. Hassan, another Jabal Mohsen resident, told Human Rights Watch that after Youssef was shot, armed men from Jabal Mohsen returned fire, setting off repeated exchanges of fire between the two neighborhoods.

Khalid, a wounded Sunni man from Maluleh, a neighborhood adjacent to Jabal Mohsen, told Human Rights Watch from his hospital bed that he was shot on his way to work on May 22 by a sniper from Jabal Mohsen. He said:

I woke up yesterday and called my supervisor to tell him that I wouldn’t be coming into work because the security situation was bad. He said that if I didn’t come in that I shouldn’t bother to come in anymore so I got on my motorcycle and headed there. When I reached the end of my street I decided to avoid the highway road which passes by Jabal Mohsen and took the Mahjar Road instead because it is safer. Suddenly, a resident shouted out to me to warn me about snipers … [After he did that] I started to drive slowly by the wall and away from the street. Five minutes later I got shot above my behind.

Many mortar rounds have also been fired during this round of violence. On May 24, Lebanese security sources reported that almost 1,200 mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades were fired overnight between May 23 and 24 in the city. Human Rights Watch has identified remnants from 120mm and 82mm mortar rounds, as well as from rocket-propelled grenade rounds (RPGs), among the weapon debris found from the current violence.

Wafa, a 14-year-old Alawite girl from Jabal Mohsen who was in a hospital with her mother, told Human Rights Watch that they were home on May 19 when a shell hit their fifth floor apartment injuring her mother. She said:

I was with my mom, resting in a room on Sunday afternoon, when a shell hit our building, shattering the window glass, and shrapnel hit my mom’s right foot … Bab al-Tabbaneh is right in front of us. We live near the Zahra hospital … in a residential area … they were also shooting at the building.

Wafa told Human Rights Watch that some people from the neighborhood helped her and her mother go to the Zahra clinic in Jabal Mohsen, and that from there, the Red Cross took them in a vehicle marked as an ambulance to a hospital outside the neighborhood. She said that along the way, the ambulance was shot at, and that they got into a car accident as a result. When Human Rights Watch researchers saw her in the hospital on May 23, she said she was sleeping there to care for her mother because there was no safe road home.

During every clash, thousands of families are trapped in their homes by the violence, and have to use elaborate but dangerous escape routes to flee their homes and go stay with relatives in other parts of the city, residents said. While the violence impacts the security and lives of all the affected neighborhoods, residents in Jabal Mohsen cannot easily flee because it is effectively surrounded by often hostile neighborhoods. They are often reliant on the single, underequipped Zahra medical clinic, placing wounded persons at risk of bleeding to death or succumbing to their wounds before reaching adequate medical care. Clinic staff who spoke to Human Rights Watch researchers in early May, prior to the latest round of violence, said that patients had died because of lack of access to adequate medical services, or because of the delay in accessing medical care.

In addition, schools in all the affected areas are regularly forced to shut down because of armed clashes, and the traumatic impact on school children has caused a significant drop in performance results, according to teachers who spoke to Human Rights Watch.

Wafa, a student at the Abi Firas School in Jabal Mohsen, said that her school was closed because of the violence and that it had closed many times over the course of the last school year because of skirmishes. She said that she had exams on June 22 and that she was worried she wouldn’t be able to focus on her studies or sit for her exams because of the violence.

Impact of the Violence on Property and Economic Activity
Beyond the immediate death toll and the large numbers of residents wounded in the clashes, the violence has also imposed a severe financial toll on the lives of residents in the strife-affected areas of the city.

Almost every home visited by Human Rights Watch in Jabal Mohsen and its surrounding Sunni neighborhoods in early May 2013 showed damage from violence, ranging from individual bullet impacts to impacts from rocket-propelled grenades, to apartments that had been completely gutted by fire caused by explosive impacts. In the majority of apartments exposed to direct fire that Human Rights Watch visited, rooms most exposed to violence were unused during clashes, or residents had stacked walls with sandbags or concrete bricks to protect themselves.

Economic activity in the area has also come to a virtual standstill, with many businesses and factories closing down in the affected areas, residents said. The broader city of Tripoli has also seen a significant economic decline because of the violence, as its tourism industry dwindles and investment has dried up, according to a local charity representative.

State Response
Since 2008, with each round of violence, the Lebanese government response has followed a familiar pattern best described as an effort to contain the situation by deploying the army during each round but doing little until the next round of violence.

The army has a permanent presence in both Jabal Mohsen and its neighboring Sunni neighborhoods, and many army officers are very familiar with the armed groups on both sides. Before the most recent round of violence, in both Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh, Human Rights Watch researchers witnessed army officers speak to members of armed groups on a first-name basis, and interviewed armed militants sitting openly just meters away from army positions. During peaceful periods, it appears the Lebanese army does little to contain the activities of armed fighters.

In this latest round, on May 19, the Lebanese army intervened to stop the violence by shooting back at the source of fire, sending out patrols, and setting up roadblocks. On May 20, the army continued firing back at armed groups shooting in the area and the Minister of Defense froze arms licenses in Tripoli until further notice, saying that violators would be subject to prosecution.

Army-brokered attempts to achieve a ceasefire faltered on May 23 amid renewed rounds of violence, but on May 27, a relative calm appeared to return to the city as the army deployed heavily in the city. Like past rounds of violence, no real effort has been made to arrest gunmen on either side or seize weapons in any meaningful way despite the ministry’s directive. 

“The conflict in Syria has the potential to fuel grievances between the communities and turn this into an all-out war,” Houry said. “The government should act now to disarm abusers and address the heart of these grievances before it is too late.”

Statements from Wounded Residents and Relatives
Fayez, a 42-year-old Jabal Mohsen resident told Human Rights Watch from his hospital bed that he was shot in the chest on May 21 on his way home from getting bread from the Amran bakery. He said:

I was on my way back … when I was shot by a sniper. Another man who was next to me … was also shot and killed. The shooting was coming from the direction of Baqqar and the Abu Ali roundabout [in Bab al-Tabbaneh]. We were three or four men standing under the building talking about what a safe road would be to go home. We didn’t realize that they could see us from where we were … I was shot once in the chest, and then a group of guys came after they heard our shouting and screaming and put me in a car, and took me to the Zahra clinic. After that, the army brought me to this hospital … This was around 3 or 4 in the afternoon. None of us had weapons. The other men were civilians like me.

Fayez told Human Rights Watch that his brother, Riyad Maaraf was killed in a previous round of violence between the two neighborhoods on April 15, 2012. He described how this and the previous rounds of violence disrupted his day-to-day life. He said: “When the fighting starts, Jabal Mohsen residents have nowhere to go. We can’t move. There is no safe exit …We are surrounded by the snipers.”

In the same hospital, Human Rights Watch also spoke to Maha, a 13-year-old Alawite girl from Aalma, a neighborhood to the east of both Bab al-Tabbanah and Jabal Mohsen, who was also shot in the chest. Maha told Human Rights Watch that she was shot on the steps in front of her grandparents’ house on May 19 at around 6 p.m. She said:

I was with my relatives in front of my grandparents’ house when we heard something like a loud explosion. Then I felt as if there was something in me. I was just standing by the door and saw the blood on my clothing. My uncle who was with me yelled, and got me, and put me in the car and brought me to the hospital.

Marwan, a 23-year-old Sunni man from Bab al-Tabbaneh who described himself as a company employee in Beirut who works night shifts, told Human Rights Watch that he was walking home through the market in Bab al-Tabbaneh at 1:30 a.m. on May 22 on his way back from work when he was injured by shrapnel from a shell. He said:

I passed some people [in the market] who were telling me to go back because they were hitting with mortars. Then a shell hit just on the other side of the street across from me … After I was injured, some people came because someone screamed that there was an injured person. I saw that I was bleeding from my chest and I put my other hand over my wound and walked toward them. I lost a lot of blood and passed out. The next thing I remember I was in the hospital here.

Marwan said there were armed residents in the market at the time of the mortar strike that hit him and that they were returning fire on the source of the attack. He estimated there were four to five armed men on every street he passed in Bab al-Tabbaneh. 

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