Lebanese army soldiers stand on their armored personnel carriers during their deployment in the streets of the Sunni neighborhood of Bab Tabbaneh, in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Wednesday. In a rare day of exuberant emotion, weary residents of two warring neighborhoods greeted each other with tears and cheers as hundreds of Lebanese soldiers deployed there for the first time in years. The government is trying to bring peace to an area that has been impacted by the nearby Syrian civil war.
TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Gunmen cheerfully shared coffee and cigarettes with men they have tried to kill with assault rifles, grenades and mortars. Women on balconies hurled rice to celebrate. Men chanted giddily to welcome soldiers deploying to the streets of this northern Lebanese city.
In a day as joyful as it was unlikely, weary residents of two Tripoli neighborhoods on Wednesday celebrated as hundreds of Lebanese soldiers deployed in the most determined plan yet by the government to stabilize an area that for the past year has been increasingly drawn into the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Khaki-clad Lebanese soldiers in APCs used bulldozers to scrape away sandbag fortifications used by gunmen, pushing aside dumpsters used as barricades. Residents spoke of arrest raids targeting wanted gunmen. The 3G cellular connection was cut, preventing gunmen from using the WhatsApp messaging system.
“They threw rice on me! It’s like a dream,” said 19-year-old Abdullah as he walked in a spontaneous demonstration for unity between rival neighborhoods.
The security plan is an important test case for whether Lebanon can reverse its slide into conflict, fueled by violent sectarian tensions trigged by the war next door, particularly between the country’s Sunnis and Shiite Muslims.
Bab Tabbaneh is mostly Sunni, whose residents support Syrian rebels in their war to overthrow President Bashar Assad. Jabal Mohsen residents are mostly Alawite, and loyal to Assad, who shares their faith, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The Syria tensions added to decades of bad blood between the two areas, stretching back to Lebanon’s 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.
Exhaustion and frustration with months of fighting likely contributed to the jovial mood Wednesday, which many skeptics predicted would not last. Even among the celebrations, residents said their rivalries hadn’t ended.
Some young men in Bab Tabbaneh skulked in back streets, eyeing soldiers as they smoked water pipes. A group of men near a juice stand resentfully hurled fireworks on the ground near soldiers.
But the pause in fighting offered relief from flaring clashes that have killed over 200 people in the past three years. The clashes have destroyed businesses, impoverished families and battered the two neighborhoods, where buildings are riddled with bullets and gaping mortar holes.
“People here are fed up of clashes and shelling. We don’t want to see any more houses under fire or any more families forced to flee,” said Abdul Qader Hamzeh, 28. “We don’t want to face what the Syrians are facing.”
The pause also reminded residents of older family ties between the two areas, connected by alleys and a shared sense of abandonment by the state.
On a street where only snipers trod, two old friends hugged and laughed.
“Jabal Mohsen and Bab Tabbaneh are only two steps from each other,” said Abu Yusef, of the Alawite neighborhood. “Politicians intervened so they could destroy us,” said the 30-year-old. His friend, Abu Haitham, a Sunni, said some of his relatives married Alawites of Jabal Mohsen, and he struggled with the idea that they were enemies.
Abu Yusef joked that he was going to find a Sunni bride.
Nearby, young men in Bab Tabbaneh cheered around soldiers patrolling on foot and in armored vehicles, shouting: “The people and the army are one hand!”
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