16 Lebanese army soldiers die in battle against followers of Sunni cleric

Security situation of country deteriorates after Hezbollah joins army in battle against followers of a radical Sunni cleric in Sidon

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 June, 2013, 4:54pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 4:06am

Lebanese army units battled followers of a hard-line Sunni cleric holed up in a mosque complex in a southern port city yesterday, the second day of fighting that has left at least 16 soldiers dead, the military said.

The clashes in Sidon - Lebanon's third-largest city, some 40 kilometres south of Beirut - are the latest bout of violence linked to the conflict in neighbouring Syria. They are the bloodiest yet involving the army - at least two of those killed are officers.

The Lebanese media has depicted the clashes as a test for the state in containing armed groups that have taken up the cause of the warring sides in Syria, whose sectarian make-up mirrors that of its smaller neighbour.

The two days of fighting between troops and armed supporters of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir have transformed the city, which had been largely spared the violence plaguing border areas near Syria, into a combat zone.

The National News Agency said the clashes also left 50 wounded. Hospital officials said at least three of Assir's supporters died in the fighting.

The military said the gunmen were using the religious compound to fire on its troops and had taken civilians as shields.

Machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled-grenade explosions caused panic in Sidon, where residents reported power and water outages. The city streets were largely deserted yesterday.

Local media reported many residents were asking for evacuation from the heavily populated neighbourhood around the Bilal bin Rabbah Mosque, where Assir preaches and where the fighting has been concentrated. The local municipality said the city is "a war zone", appealing for a ceasefire to evacuate the civilians and wounded in the area.

Many people living on upper floors came down or fled to safer areas, while others ran from fighting areas carrying children. Others were locked up in their homes or shops, fearing getting caught in the crossfire. Smoke billowed over parts of the city.

The military appealed to the gunmen to hand themselves in. It said "it will continue to uproot the strife and will not stop its operations until security is totally restored to the city and its boroughs, and falls under the rule of law and order."

The clashes erupted on Sunday in the predominantly Sunni city after a follower of Assir was arrested. The army says supporters of the cleric opened fire without provocation on a checkpoint.

Assir is a virulent critic of the powerful Shiite militant Hezbollah group, which along with its allies dominates Lebanon's government. He supports rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Hezbollah fighters on the overlooking hillsides attacked Assir's mosque, while army troops cut off most of the approaches to the area and came under attack.

"I saw plain-clothes military men - I think they were Hezbollah - approach [an Assir bodyguard] and beat and arrest him for carrying a pistol he did not have," Ibrahim Dada said as he manned a checkpoint in the Abra neighbourhood. "So we defended our people from the party of Satan."

There were repeated attacks with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades on the area from a hillside widely know to contain Hezbollah military positions.

Early yesterday, Assir appealed through Twitter to his supporters in other parts of Lebanon to rise to his help, threatening to widen the scale of clashes. The tweets did not give a clear statement on how the battle began. It came after a series of incidents pitting the cleric's followers in the town against Hezbollah supporters and the army.

The cleric is believed to have hundreds of armed supporters in Sidon. Dozens of Assir's gunmen also partially shut down the main highway linking south Lebanon with Beirut yesterday. They opened fire in other parts of the city, with gunshots reported in the city's market.

Islamist factions in Ein el-Hilweh, a teeming Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon, lobbed mortars at military checkpoints around the camp.

Additional reporting by McClatchy-Tribune