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Troops, gunmen exchange fire in Beirut as tensions rise

BEIRUT--Lebanese troops and gunmen exchanged fire in a Sunni district of Beirut on Monday, raising fears Lebanon could be engulfed in sectarian violence after the murder of a top security official blamed on Syria.

The army promptly said it was determined to restore order in Lebanon, with the northern port of Tripoli shaken by fighting between partisans and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that killed five people.

Lebanon has been on edge since Friday, when police intelligence chief General Wissam al-Hassan died in a Beirut car bombing. That immediately prompted calls for Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose cabinet is dominated by Damascus ally Hezbollah, to resign.

Amid fears Lebanon will be further affected by the conflict in Syria, the envoys to Beirut of the U.N. Security Council's permanent members met President Michel Sleiman and condemned any attempt to destabilize the situation and called for national unity.

The army is “committed to its role of stopping security breaches and maintaining civil order,” a statement from the high command said.

It will take “resolute measures, particularly in areas of mounting sectarian friction ... to prevent the assassination of martyred General Wissam al-Hassan from being exploited as an opportunity to murder the nation as a whole.”

The military also appealed to all political forces to be wary of their words and any calls for mobilization, “because the fate of the nation is at stake.”

Lebanon is a multi-faith country in which Christians, Shiite and Sunni Muslims each make up about one-third of the population.

The army statement came as troops responded after being fired on as they tried to clear a road in a Sunni district of Beirut that had been blocked by partisans of opposition leader Saad Hariri despite his calls for them to stay off the streets.

One of the gunmen told AFP a local resident had been killed in the shooting.

In the northern port of Tripoli, a Sunni bastion where opposition to Assad is strong, a woman and four youths died during fighting between Sunnis and Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Assad belongs, security sources said. A four-year-old girl was wounded, as were three soldiers hit as troops attempted to restore calm.

Clashes have erupted regularly in Tripoli as tensions spill over the border from Syria.

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