At least six Lebanese soldiers were killed Sunday in a fierce clash with followers of a radical Sunni Muslim cleric in the southern city of Sidon as Lebanon’s security continues to deteriorate due to sectarian tensions over Hezbollah’s involvement in neighboring Syria’s civil war.
The battle between the Lebanese Armed Forces and followers of Sheikh Ahmad al Assir was apparently sparked by an attempted arrest of one of the cleric’s bodyguards; the fighting eventually drew at least the limited involvement of Hezbollah fighters based on a nearby mountainside who used mortars and recoilless rifles to support the attack by LAF commandos.
An unknown number of gunmen and civilians were killed and wounded. Local media reports indicate that Assir’s brother might have been a casualty. As night fell, the LAF reported at least 20 of its soldiers had been wounded and that a major operation was underway to put an end to both the fighting and Assir’s hold over the Abra neighborhood of Sidon. Supporters of Assir’s anti-Hezbollah and anti-Syrian regime stances were taking to the streets throughout Lebanon to block traffic and protest.
The neighboring civil war in Syria -- as well as Hezbollah’s strong military and political support for the embattled regime of Bashar Assad -- have left much of Lebanon in political turmoil as many Lebanese support the predominately Sunni Muslim rebels and oppose Shiite Muslim Hezbollah’s involvement. But with Lebanon’s powerful and numerous Shiite Muslim community firmly supporting the Hezbollah, which is widely considered the most effective military force in Lebanon, a political stalemate over involvement has slowly turned more violent as both sides refuse to yield.
Fighting began Sunday after followers of Assir, who has called for a jihad against both Hezbollah and its allies in neighboring Syria, claimed the Lebanese Army attempted to arrest members of the group without provocation. The neighborhood of Abra, which saw heavy fighting last Tuesday evening, then turned into a battleground as Hezbollah fighters on the overlooking hillsides deployed mortars, recoilless rifles and snipers to attack Assir’s mosque. Army troops cut off most of the approaches to the area and came under attack.
“I saw plainclothes military men, I think they were Hezbollah, approach [an Assir bodyguard] and beat and arrest him for carrying a pistol he did not have,” said Ibrahim Dada, as he manned a checkpoint with his machine gun inside the Abra neighborhood in Sidon. “So we defended our people from the Party of Satan,” a common Sunni nickname for Hezbollah.
A McClatchy correspondent present witnessed repeated mortar and rocket propelled grenade attacks on the area from a hillside widely know to contain Hezbollah military positions overlooking the city.
Assir, whose hardline anti-Shiite and anti-Hezbollah beliefs have polarized the mostly Sunni city of Sidon, had previously threatened to wage war on Hezbollah if the group does not withdraw thousands of its fighters from Syria, where they are assisting the Assad regime in putting down a mostly Sunni revolution. He has also called for Hezbollah to withdraw from Sidon itself and set a deadline for next week before his men attack their positions.
However, it appeared that it would be difficult for Assir to make good on that threat as well-trained and well-equipped Hezbollah fighters pounded the areas around his stronghold on the outskirts of Sidon with all manner of heavy weapons.
The normally quiet residential neighborhood of Abra was battered by rocket propelled grenades, sniper fire, and even mortar rounds launched from Hezbollah positions overlooking the city. Assir’s black masked and armed followers appeared pinned down in the stairwells of apartment buildings in the area.
The Lebanese Army was maintaining its positions about a mile away from the fighting, along the seaside road that runs through Sidon, where its American supplied armored personnel carriers and Bradley Fighting Vehicles could be seen blocking many roads.
Even as snipers from within Abra targeted their positions, they eventually forced the closure of Lebanon’s main coastal highway. The Army released an early evening statement that said its troops were preparing a major assault on the area and that Assir would be targeted himself for ‘provocation’ and disturbing the public safety.
McClatchy could not confirm reports that Sunni gunmen from the neighboring Ain el-Hilweh refugee camp -- home to a number of jihadist groups sympathetic to Al Qa'eda -- were entering the fray on the side of Assir’s men. But a substantial amount of gunfire could be heard from the area as local television reported Lebanese Army checkpoints around the camp had come under heavy fire from unknown gunmen.
In response to reports of fighting, Sunni neighborhoods throughout Lebanon saw masked gunmen emerge and streets blocked by burning tires even as government and religious leaders called for calm and order.