Lebanon: Tensions rise in Tripoli as armed protesters roam streets
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Protesters from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli poured onto the streets in late June to protest against their difficult living conditions as the country grapples with an ongoing economic crisis and medicine and petrol shortages. On June 30, protesters fired guns into the air, and the army was deployed throughout the town. Our Observer in Tripoli told us about the volatile atmosphere that day.
Lebanon’s government has cut back on fuel imports over the last few months because of the plummeting value of the Lebanese pound. As petrol becomes more scarce, prices have gone up too and long queues have formed outside petrol stations across the country.
Fuel for heating is also in short supply. Many Lebanese use it to power electric generators, which they’re forced to use because the state electricity is unreliable and heavily rationed.
In Tripoli, the second-largest city in the country, protests have teetered on the edge of violence. In late June, groups of armed civilians took to the streets and forced businesses to close down to show support to the demonstrations.
On June 26, demonstrators tried to destroy a number of public buildings, such as a branch of the national bank, Bank of Lebanon. Security forces pushed back and dozens of people were injured in the clashes, according to local media.
On Wednesday, June 30, the Lebanese army was deployed across Tripoli to try to restore calm. But tensions arose between soldiers and protesters. Several videos shared on Twitter show soldiers retreating from protesters throwing projectiles at them. In other videos, men in civilian clothes fire guns into the air.
Soldiers in a tank retreat while firing in the air at protesters who were throwing projectiles at them, in the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighbourhood, Wednesday, June 30.
#Lebanon : Dangerous escalation of tensions in #Tripoli - videos circulating appearing to show army withdrawing from several districts amid anger from residents - with shooting reported #طرابلس pic.twitter.com/Ilx7cYUr9S— sebastian usher (@sebusher) June 30, 2021
An army vehicle reverses as a crowd of protesters advances, in Bab al-Tabbaneh. Gunshots can be heard, although it’s not clear who is firing them.
Guns are extremely common in Lebanon. According to a study by Lebanon Statistics released in October 2020, 31.5% of Lebanese households own a hunting or military-style gun.
'The situation could boil over at any moment'
Mustapha (not his real name) is a journalist in Tripoli. He told us about the atmosphere in the town during the demonstrations.
The areas in the town where it really became tense on Wednesday [June 30] were the Bab al-Tabbanah and Kobbé neighbourhoods. Armed protesters came out in these neighbourhoods, sometimes blocking the roads. This was worrying for locals, who were scared that the situation would degenerate even further. Other areas in the town managed to stay relatively calm.
Over the course of the day, the army was deployed in the areas of the town that were most on edge to try and establish order. But soldiers ended up retreating so as not to inflame tensions any further.
At the same time, marine commandos were called in as reinforcements, including snipers who positioned themselves on the roofs of buildings.
ظهور مسلح في طرابلس شمال لبنان ومسلحون يطالبون عناصر الجيش بإخلاء المدينة pic.twitter.com/z92Gxy18hr— ﮼مـصـدر ﮼مسـؤول (@MMas2ool) June 30, 2021
This video filmed from an apartment shows a man wearing civilian clothes in the middle of the road, armed with a rifle, in the Kobbe neighbourhood. Gunshots can be heard. Video posted June 30.
أصحاب المحال التجارية يقفلون مؤسساتهم خوفاً من تدهور الوضع الأمني في مدينة طرابلس وسط معلومات متداولة لقطع كافة طرقات طرابلس و اعلان عصيان مدني و حالة من التصعيد. pic.twitter.com/kYA93Mp1LL— ﮼مـصـدر ﮼مسـؤول (@MMas2ool) June 30, 2021
Two men on a scooter, the passenger armed with a gun, talk briefly with someone else who is also armed. The other man fires a burst of gunfire. Video filmed in Kobbe, June 30.
Fortunately, the situation was resolved later in the evening. High-ranking army officials met with local authorities, and the army agreed to donate several hundreds of litres of fuel to residents so that they could have electricity for a few days.
The electricity provided by the state is rationed to only two hours a day in Tripoli. If the population doesn’t have fuel to make electricity generators work, there is no alternative solution. And that’s what stirred up tensions.
On Thursday, July 1, the army was still deployed in the town, where there was a precarious sense of calm. But it could boil over at any moment.
Since the beginning of last week, demonstrators blocked several main roads across Lebanon to protest against the major petrol shortage, but also against the fact that the government raised petrol prices by more than 30% on June 29, after partially lifting petrol subsidies.
>> Read on The Observers: Lebanon petrol shortage sparks hours-long queues, armed clashes