TRIPOLI, Lebanon  - Clashes erupted between heavily-armed supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Lebanon's port of Tripoli on Saturday, killing nine people and prompting Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati to rush there to try to stop the violence.

Mikati held talks with ministers and officials in the northern city, as gunmen a few miles (kilometres) away fired machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades at each other. Residents and a doctor said 42 people had been wounded.

The clashes began just after midnight on Friday and were continuing late on Saturday night when mortar bombs could be heard, said a Reuters journalist at the scene. The army moved into the area with armored vehicles but did not open fire.

Gunmen from the Jabal Mohsen district, home to the minority Alawite sect - the same offshoot of Shi'ite Islam to which Assad belongs, have fought on-off skirmishes over the past few weeks with Sunni Muslim fighters in the Bab al-Tabbaneh area.

Saturday's death toll is the highest in a single day in Tripoli, raising fears that Syria's unrest could spill over into its smaller neighbor.

The Lebanese National News Agency said there was "shelling across both areas heard every five minutes, and snipers targeting civilians".

Residents said those killed included civilians caught in the crossfire and that a Lebanese soldier was among the wounded.

The areas have long-standing grievances separate from the Syrian conflict but the Sunni-led uprising against Assad has caused strife among Lebanon's mixed population, especially in majority Sunni Tripoli, 70 km (43 miles) north of Beirut.

International peace envoy Kofi Annan said on Saturday that Syria was slipping into all-out war and that the entire region would suffer if the international community did not step up pressure on Assad.

"Let me appeal to all of you to engage earnestly and seriously with all other stakeholders, mindful that if regional and international divisions play out in Syria, the Syrian people and the region - your region - will pay the price," Annan told a meeting of Arab League member countries.

The United Nations says forces loyal to Assad have killed more that 9,000 people during the revolt in Syria.

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