Fighters from a Sunni militia loyal to Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, Sunday – Photo: Reuters
The army said 12 soldiers had been killed in clashes which broke out on Sunday after security forces detained a follower of the hardline Sunni Muslim cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir. His supporters retaliated by opening fire at an army checkpoint.
Lebanon’s military forces battling followers of Assir closed in Monday on the mosque where they are taking cover, the national news agency said. Fighting between Sunni gunmen and members of Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah were also reported, as well as fighting in the northern Lebanon city of Tripoli. Contagion from the Syrian conflict has already exploded in deadly street fighting and rocket attacks in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley
The clashes in Sidon, 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Beirut, are the latest bout of violence in Lebanon linked to the conflict in neighboring Syria, with rival Lebanese groups sympathizing with different Syrian sects.
Sidon had been on edge since violence erupted last week between Sunni and Shiite Muslim fighters, at odds over the Syrian conflict which pits mainly Sunni rebels against Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is a member of the country’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Many people living on high floors came down or fled to safer areas, while others were seen running away from fighting areas carrying children. Others remained locked up in their homes or shops, fearing getting caught in the crossfire. Gray smoke billowed over parts of the city.
Al-Assir, a Sunni, 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 Assad, whereas Hezbollah is an ally of the Syrian president. Early Monday, al-Assir appealed to his supporters through his Twitter account in other parts of Lebanon to rise to his help, threatening to widen the scale of clashes.
A Lebanese military armored personnel vehicle catches flames as rescue team evacuate the wounded, Sidon on Sunday – Photo: AP
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 against other groups in the town, including Hezbollah supporters and the army.
Al-Assir stated Sunday that the reason for the clash was the fact that Lebanon was not preventing Hezbollah from fighting in the Syrian war on Assad’s side. In a YouTube video the group uploaded, al-Assir said his people were attacked by the Lebanese army, which he called “Iranian and Shiite,” and called on “Sunni and non-Sunni soldiers alike to desert the Lebanese army.”
Fighting also broke out in Ein el-Hilweh, a Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon, where al-Assir has supporters. Islamist factions inside the camp lobbed mortars at military checkpoints. The army announced late Sunday additional force deployments around Beirut.
Sectarian clashes in Lebanon tied to the Syrian conflict have intensified in recent weeks, especially Hezbollah sent fighters to support Assad’s forces.
The military openly linked the clashes of Sidon to the conflict in Syria said in a statement Sunday. It said the attacks on its forces by al-Assir supporters were unprovoked, and accusing the cleric of seeking to “incite strife” in Lebanon. The military vowed to hit back with an “iron fist.”
Headlines of Lebanon’s newspapers were all dominated by the violence in Sidon, with many seeing it as a test for the state to impose order. “An attempt to assassinate Sidon and the military,” read the headline of the daily al-Safir. “Al-Assir crosses the red line,” read another headline in al-Jomhouria daily. A third headline in al-Nahar read: “Yesterday war in Sidon. Today, decisiveness or settlement?”
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman announced an emergency government session following the events in Sidon and said al-Assir’s call for soldiers to desert the military only serves Lebanon’s enemies, but that they would fall on deaf ears as the “army has the trust and support of the people.”
Hezbollah has received scathing criticism from the Arab world and especially in Lebanon for its involvement in the Syrian civil war . Meanwhile, Lebanon, for the first time, filed a complaint at the U.N. Security Council against Syria claiming that the Syrian Air Force carried out attacks on Lebanese soil and that Syria has been continuously meddling in the country’s internal affairs.
Meanwhile, a suicide bomber detonated himself in Damascus on Sunday, killing at least eight people.
View original Israel Hayom publication at: http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=10195