Syrian troops sealed off Tripoli on Friday and appeared ready to move in to quell a bloody 13-day power struggle in Lebanon’s second-largest city.
During a morning lull in the fighting, unidentified gunmen killed 12 fleeing motorists only 200 yards from a Syrian military checkpoint on the city’s outskirts. Lebanese state radio branded the killings an “ugly massacre.”
The travelers, including women and children, were pulled from their cars and questioned by the gunmen. Police said 12 Sunni Muslim men were ordered aside, lined up and machine-gunned. The gunmen then shot each man in the head as their relatives watched in horror, the private International News Agency reported.
Syria has strengthened its forces around Tripoli since Wednesday, demonstrating its impatience with feuding Muslim militias who are undermining Syrian efforts to end 10 years of civil war.
Battles between the Tawhid, a Muslim fundamentalist militia backed by the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Syrian-backed Arabian Knights, the Arab Democratic Party’s militia, intensified after the roadside killings. The rocket and artillery duels killed eight people and wounded 19.
Police said Syrian troops, who had been positioned in hills on three sides of the port city, began closing in Friday afternoon, blocking all roads. Officials in Beirut said up to 3,500 Syrian soldiers armed with Soviet-built tanks, artillery and rocket-launchers have encircled Tripoli and exchanged fire with Tawhid positions.