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Sectarian violence in Lebanon echoing Syria's conflict

The past three days have witnessed fierce sectarian fighting in Tripoli, Lebanon's second city, where tensions have been exacerbated by Syria's yearlong crisis.

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A Sunni gunman fires in a front of burned car during a clashes, in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Sunday, May 13, 2012. Sectarian violence linked to the unrest in neighboring Syria shook the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli the past three days.

Hussein Malla/AP

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The year-long crisis in Syria has exacerbated sectarian tensions between two adjacent districts in TripoliLebanon’s second city, transforming them into a microcosm of the turmoil and bloodshed wracking Syria.

 Although clashes are not uncommon here, the past three days have witnessed some of the fiercest fighting between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli in years, killing eight people, including a Lebanese soldier, and wounding more than 50. Mortar rounds were used for the first time, spurring hundreds of panicked people to leave their homes.

“We will not have peace here until we get rid of the Syrian regime. All our problems, all the violence, all the poverty we suffer here are because of the Syrian regime,” says Sheikh Bilal Masri, a militant Sunni cleric, talking over the crackle of a walkie talkie on his coffee table.

The thin, wiry preacher, who follows the austere Salafi sect of Sunni Islam, says he has not slept for three days and suffers from a persistent cough which he blames on smoke inhalation from burning tires and explosive residue. He picks up an old rifle fitted with a telescopic sight and pats the wooden stock affectionately.

 “I shot two of them with this,” he says, handing over the French sniper rifle dating from the late 1940s.

A few hours earlier, he and other Sunni militants had been manning a frontline of bullet-holed, fire-scorched buildings and barricades of car tires while taking pot shots at his enemies hidden among the tower blocks in the adjacent hilltop district of Jabal Mohsen, home to Lebanon’s small population of Alawites, an obscure splinter sect of Shiite Islam.

 The Sunnis of Tripoli broadly support the mainly Sunni opposition in Syria. But the residents of Jabal Mohsen are members of the same minority Alawite sect which forms the backbone of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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