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In Lebanon, a worrying sectarian spillover from Syria

Tripoli, Lebanon witnessed some of the worst sectarian fighting in the country since its civil war ended two decades ago, with Alawite and Sunni communities inflamed by the deepening war across the border in Syria.

By Correspondent / June 3, 2012

Lebanese soldiers patrol by a car damaged in the fighting in Tripoli on Sunday.

Bilal Hussein/AP

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Tripoli, Lebanon

Rival Sunni and Alawite factions fought on Saturday some of the heaviest gunbattles seen in Lebanon's second largest city since the dark days of the the civil war which ended more than two decades ago. The latest bout of fighting here in Tripoli underlines Lebanese worries that the violence that has engulfed neighboring Syria over the past year is spreading across the border, aggravating unhealed wounds from the past and stirring fresh tensions that they fear could trigger a new civil war in Lebanon.

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"We cannot be soft dealing with the Alawites and the Shiites because they have decided to slaughter all the Sunnis in Lebanon and Syria," says Sheikh Bilal Masri, a militant Sunni cleric from the Bab Tebbaneh neighborhood of Tripoli. The Alawite sect is an obscure branch of Shiite Islam which forms the backbone of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Last week warnings that Syria's conflict could spread rang out in the halls of the UN and world capitals. US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said she's worried about a scenario where "the violence escalates, the conflict spreads and intensifies... in involves countries in the region it takes on increasingly sectarian forms and we have a major crisis not only in Syria, but in the region."

That concern was echoed Sunday by Akmaluddin Ihsan Oglu, the head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, who warned that Lebanon could slip into civil war once again if the clases continue. "We want all sides in Lebanon to seek their country's higher interest, which is peaceful coexistence between its people," he said.

Tripoli's hilltop district of Jabal Mohsen is where the first embers of a spreading fire could land.

The neighborhood looms over Bab Tebbaneh, is home to most of Lebanon's tiny Alawite community. The Alawites of Jabal Mohsen have been feuding with the Sunnis of Bab Tebbaneh and other Sunni quarters surrounding the hill since the mid 1970s, which has earned it the dubious distinction of being Lebanon's most volatile neighborhood.

While clashes between the two communities are not uncommon, their severity has increased. Two weeks ago, 10 people were killed in several days fighting here. On Saturday, 12 people died within 24 hours during clashes which allegedly saw mortar rounds being fired for the first time.

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