Lebanese army enters Tripoli militant refuge after thousands flee

The troops met no immediate resistance as they moved into the Islamist stronghold of Bab al-Tabbaneh

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Lebanese troops entered a Tripoli neighborhood Monday where thousands of civilians had fled deadly fighting with al-Qaeda-linked militants who have battled the army across the northern city for three days.

The troops met no immediate resistance as they moved into the Islamist stronghold of Bab al-Tabbaneh, where the militants were nowhere to be seen, an AFP correspondent reported.

Troops carried out house-to-house searches as they advanced and made several weapons seizures. Only sporadic gunfire could be heard.

Thousands of civilians had fled the impoverished Sunni neighborhood of some 100,000 people during a lull in fighting late on Sunday.

Dozens of homes and shops burned down as the army rained heavy mortar fire on the militants who had holed up in Bab al-Tabbaneh after launching an unprecedented assault in Tripoli's central market district on Friday.

It was the first time that deadly violence had hit the historic heart of Lebanon's second largest city, which has been rocked by a mounting spillover of violence from the more than three year civil war in neighboring Syria.

At least five civilians and 11 soldiers have been killed since Friday.

Residents who had spent the night with relatives or in makeshift accommodation in schools or public offices were still too scared to return to their homes.

Even in areas far from the fighting, the streets were empty, with people too fearful to go out.

There had been chaotic scenes during the night as people of all ages fled their ravaged neighborhood.

Many of the women walked out in their pyjamas, crying as they and the men were searched by army and intelligence troops.

Men carried out children and elderly people too weak to walk.

Five wounded civilians and dozens of ill people were evacuated in Red Cross ambulances.

The authorities announced that schools and universities would remain closed across Tripoli on Monday because of the violence.

The coastal city has seen repeated clashes between Sunni militants sympathetic to rebel fighters in neighboring Syria and Alawites loyal to the Damascus regime.

The army has also come under growing attack by Sunnis who accuse it of colluding with Shiite militant group Hezbollah in its intervention in the Syrian conflict on the side of the regime.