Lebanese Sunni gunmen hold a meeting inside a building in the Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh on May 23, 2013
Lebanese Sunni gunmen hold a meeting inside a building in the Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh following overnight clashes with the Alawite neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen in the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli, on May 23, 2013. As Syria's civil war spills over into Lebanon, some terrified residents in Tripoli say they want nothing to do with the conflict. © Joseph Eid - AFP
Lebanese Sunni gunmen hold a meeting inside a building in the Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh on May 23, 2013
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Sara Hussein, AFP
Last updated: May 23, 2013

Lebanese children sleep rough as Syrian war spills over

Rania sits on a blanket in the street, clutching her three children a day after they fled deadly fighting in the Bab el-Tebbaneh district of Lebanon's flashpoint northern town Tripoli.

"It's our children who pay the price," she says, bouncing her wide-eyed toddler Ahmed on her lap.

"We first left the house on Sunday, when the fighting began. At first we thought it was celebratory gunfire for a wedding, but then the mortar rounds started to fall," she says.

Terrified, she and her husband Abdullah gathered Ahmed and his two sisters, Nurhan and Batul, and fled their neighbourhood in their car.

With nowhere to go, they are sleeping in the beaten up vehicle, and spending their days sitting on a red-and-black blanket, listening to the crackle of sniper fire just down the road.

They are surrounded by other families who have also fled the fighting that broke out on Sunday between the Sunni residents of Bab el-Tebbaneh and the Alawite residents of neighbouring Jabal Mohsen.

Despite repeated efforts to resolve the flare-up in violence that began Sunday, at least 20 people have been killed and 150 injured.

The violence is linked to the conflict raging for more than two years in neighbouring Syria, where Sunni-led rebels are battling to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite.

The latest flare-up began as Syrian regime troops stormed the rebel-held town of Qusayr, not far from the border with Lebanon.

But some terrified residents in Tripoli say they want nothing to do with the conflict.

"If putting a picture of Assad on my house would stop the conflict, I'd do it," Rania says desperately.

On Tuesday, as the fighting appeared to be subsiding, her family went home.

But as night fell, the clashes resumed even more fiercely.

"It was a real war. I didn't want to leave at first, but I have three children," her husband Abdullah says.

"We had to flee under fire, I thank God we made it out.

"But there is nothing here for us, we can't work, so there's no money for food. The children are not in school, here we have no bathroom for them, nothing," he says.

Inside Bab el-Tebbaneh, most shops are closed. A rare coffee shop is open, two plastic tables ringed by elderly men smoking and playing cards.

In front of them stands an abandoned street cart, its glass shattered by the fire that continues to ring out through the streets.

Nearby, residents have hung a blue plastic sheet across the end of the street, to shield passers-by from the view of snipers.

Young men, some wearing black t-shirts and caps with Islamic phrases written on them in white, roam the streets carrying machine guns.

They accuse the residents of Jabal Mohsen of starting the fight, and say the Lebanese army -- which has deployed in an unsuccessful bid to calm the situation -- of siding with the neighbouring district.

"We are with the Lebanese state and follow the law but what can we do when we are under attack from both sides, the army and Jabal Mohsen?" asks one gunman in his 40s, who declines to give his name.

"The ones in Jabal Mohsen, who support Assad and Hezbollah, started the fight," says Kamal, 31, a cleric sitting in the streets, dressed in a long black tunic and short trousers.

"They are organised, they have heavy weapons, we're just locals defending ourselves with whatever we can buy."

Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah movement sides with the Syrian regime and is hated in Bab el-Tebbaneh.

Nearby, Abu Ahmed, 60, is dispensing tiny cups of coffee to the few residents still in the streets.

"Whenever the fighting calms a little, I come down from my house and try to sell a few cups," he says.

"But I have five sons, and they are all on the streets, defending us."

Although efforts to resolve the flare-up are continuing, residents express little confidence that any truce will last.

"So long as those dogs up there don't want a solution, the fighting will continue," 27-year-old fighter Abu Jandal says, gesturing towards Jabal Mohsen.

"There is no way to live with people like them, and we're not afraid to die as martyrs."

In Jabal Mohsen, the Alawites are adamant that its not they but the Sunnis who started the latest fighting.

"We were surprised by the fighting because as you can see we are surrounded and logically we have no interest in a fight," said Ali Fedda, a politburo member of the Alawite-dominated Arab Democratic Party.

"We are not suicidal. We don't want to fight but we have the right to defend ourselves. The other side has no intention of calming the situation," he told AFP.

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