TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Lebanese army tanks pounded Muslim militants' positions in the narrow streets of a poor neighborhood in this northern city Sunday, where fighting has intensified and spread to nearby areas where gunmen killed four soldiers.
Several tanks, armored personnel carriers and Humvees carrying commandos arrived earlier in the day on the edge of the Bab Tabbaneh neighborhood, where clashes were heaviest. Intense gunfire exchanges and sporadic explosions rang out across the neighborhood, the worst fighting Lebanon's second largest city has seen for months.
By sunset, Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi called on the military in Tripoli to open a safe passage for ambulances to enter some of the conflict zones to evacuate the wounded and civilians. Several Tripoli hospitals urged citizens through local TV stations to donate blood of all types.
The clashes, which broke out Friday night, have so far killed 10 soldiers, four civilians and wounded many others. There were no figures of casualties among the militants.
On Wednesday, troops killed three militants and detained a local leader in a raid in the northern Dinniyeh region, setting off the spark that led to the Tripoli fighting.
A battle between Lebanese troops and Muslim militants in northern Lebanon was widely expected after members of the Islamic State group and al-Qaida's branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, launched several attacks over the past weeks in areas on the border with Syria.
Sunni militants inspired by the Nusra Front and the Islamic State group have killed and wounded several soldiers in a string of attacks in recent months in Tripoli and nearby areas.
Lebanese army commander Gen. Jean Kahwaji said in comments published this month that the militants from Syria want to ignite civil war and create a passage to Lebanon's coastline by linking the Syrian Qalamoun mountains with the Lebanese border town of Arsal and the northern Lebanese town of Akkar, an impoverished Sunni area.
The Lebanese army said in a statement that troops attacked a school in the nearby town of Bhannine that gunmen were using. It said several militants were wounded while others fled, adding that troops found two cars rigged with explosives as well as well as weapons and ammunition.
The statement said troops are deploying in Bab Tabbaneh and responding to the gunfire "of terrorists." Another army statement said gunmen captured a Lebanese off-duty soldier from his home in Bab Tabbaneh, adding that the army is working to free him.
State-run National News Agency said the troops are now in full control of Tripoli's northern suburb of Minyeh after arresting several gunmen. The agency later said that four soldiers were killed in the fighting in Bhannine that was witnessing heavy clashes Sunday evening.
A boy was also killed earlier in the day in Bab Tabbaneh while a man was killed in another part in Tripoli Sunday, NNA said.
Minister of Education Elias Bou Saab said all of Tripoli's private and public schools will close on Monday because of the security conditions.
Lebanese troops have been subjected to a wave of attacks over the past months.
The deadliest was in August, when jihadi fighters from Syria briefly overran the Lebanese border town of Arsal, capturing some 20 policemen and soldiers and killing several others. That attack was the most serious spillover of the civil war into neighboring Syria since the uprising there began in March 2011.
Islamic State fighters have since beheaded two Lebanese soldiers. Nusra Front militants have shot dead a third.
The Nusra Front threatened in a statement Sunday to kill a soldier it is holding because of the army attacks in Tripoli but later said it has postponed the threatened execution at the urging of Sunni clerics in Lebanon.
Lebanon is bitterly divided over the war, with Sunnis supporting the Syrian rebels and Shiites siding with President Bashar Assad's government. The Shiite movement Hezbollah has sent fighters to support Assad's troops. Sunni militants in Lebanon have responded with attacks on Shiites as well as security forces, who they believe are secretly dominated by Hezbollah.
Mroue reported from Beirut.
Follow Bassem Mroue on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bmroue