Lebanese soldiers seize mosque in Sidon
Up to 45 killed in fighting, the deadliest in Lebanon since Syrian war began
Residents flee from clashes between the Lebanese Army and gunmen of hardline Sunni Muslim cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, in Abra near Sidon, southern Lebanon. Photograph: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters
In the latest bloody spillover from the Syrian conflict, Lebanese commandos supported by armoured vehicles yesterday seized a mosque compound in the southern coastal city of Sidon belonging to radical Sunni cleric Ahmad Assir.
The operation followed two days of fighting that killed 17 soldiers, 25 gunmen and two civilians.
At least 30 gunmen have been detained and warrants have been issued for the fugitive preacher and another 123.
The fighting is the deadliest outbreak in Lebanon since Syria’s two-year conflict began and it has strained fragile sectarian relations across Lebanon. Residents fear Syria-related clashes could drag their country back into civil war.
Lebanon is still struggling to heal the wounds of 15 years of war between 1975 and 1990.
The assault on the complex took place following the collapse of an attempt by ultra-conservative Sunni Salafi clerics to broker a ceasefire.
Firebrand Sheikh Assir and 250 of his supporters had barricaded themselves into the compound after his men attacked an army checkpoint, killing three soldiers and precipitating a full-scale military operation.
Fire was also exchanged with militant Sunnis based in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian camp on the edge of Sidon, Lebanon’s third-largest city.
In the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city, supporters demonstrated outside the home of caretaker Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati and gunmen opened fire in a commercial district.
An opponent of the Syrian government and the Lebanese Shia Hizbullah movement, Sheikh Assir has launched a ferocious sectarian campaign against Shias and urged his followers to join rebels fighting the government in Syria.
The challenge he poses to the state is serious. The city of Sidon, his base, straddles the main highway to the south, where a large proportion of the population is Shia. Due to the fighting thousands of people travelling from the south to Beirut were stranded until the army opened the highway.
Sheikh Assir has also portrayed the clashes as a battle between the army and the Sunni community and called upon soldiers to defect, risking a split in the military, restructured as a professional force after the 1975-1990 civil war.
Christian, Shia and Sunni soldiers serve side by side in the force, which rarely intervenes in sectarian disputes.
In Egypt, in a bid to calm sectarian tensions intensified by the Syrian conflict, Egyptian prime minister Hisham Qandil denounced the beating to death of four Shias from a village near Cairo by a Sunni mob of 3,000, egged on by Salafi clerics. Fifteen perpetrators have been identified.
The attack took place a week after a rally where Salafi preachers urged Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi to close Egypt’s doors to Shias, a reference to his attempt to reconcile with Iran.
Egypt has about three million Shias in a population of 83 million. Coptic Christians, about 10 per cent of the total, have been frequently targeted by Sunni extremists.
In Damascus, Syrian foreign minister Walid Moualem said the government would not take part in peace talks in Geneva “to hand over power” but “to set up a real partnership and a broad national unity government”. He condemned the decision by the western and Arab Friends of Syria to arm the rebels, saying it would prolong the conflict.