SIDON, Lebanon: The Army launched a broad crackdown on supporters of radical preacher Sheikh Ahmad Assir after its intelligence service uncovered a list naming his supporters and financiers, as the Army’s death toll from recent fighting rose to 18 soldiers.
The list of contacts contained the names of Assir fighters, as well as dozens of media personnel, teachers, activists, youth and students, and documents linking different entities to Assir, according to military sources. The names of Assir’s bankrollers were also uncovered.
The documents included maps of targets that Assir had identified as part of a campaign to enflame sectarian tensions, the sources said, calling the find a “valuable treasure.”
The Army also confiscated large amounts of weapons and ammunition from Assir’s security perimeter around the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque in the Sidon suburb of Abra.
Fighters loyal to Assir ambushed soldiers at a checkpoint Sunday, sparking a battle that lasted for 25 hours and claimed the lives of 18 soldiers and at least two dozen Assir fighters.
The preacher escaped the mosque complex where he was hiding and his current whereabouts are unknown.
A wide campaign of arrests against Assir’s supporters has ensued, with accusations ranging from participation in terrorist activities, harming state security, participating in the fighting, murdering soldiers and citizens, as well as threatening civil peace and unity, possession of arms and threatening civilians.
Many Sidon residents expressed concern in the aftermath of the Army’s decisive victory that the widening campaign of arrests would include individuals who simply prayed at the mosque, and the fact that the issue of arms belonging to Hezbollah and its affiliates such as the Resistance Brigades has not been addressed.
Many Sidon residents complained to their MPs Fouad Siniora and Bahia Hariri that their family members were being targeted for simply attending Assir’s mosque.
Hariri said the campaign of arrests following the military victory over Assir’s forces should not be indiscriminate, and called on all nonstate arms to be eliminated from Sidon.
The Army has arrested over 250 individuals, most of them young, The Daily Star has learned.
Sidon’s Mufti Salim Sousan condemned what he said were illegal and illegitimate arrests in the aftermath of the Army’s campaign, and said there were “illegitimate forces” acting with impunity in the city. A committee of Muslim preachers visited Sousan and later convened in Abra, issuing a statement that asked about the role of Hezbollah in the fighting.
Dozens of local families also sought out the office of former MP Osama Saad, seeking his mediation to obtain clemency for family members accused of assisting Assir.
“My son did nothing, he doesn’t have any weapons, and when the fighting started he was at his aunt’s house,” said Umm Mahmoud, swearing that her 18-year-old son had been misled by Assir’s men.
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the director-general of General Security, visited Hariri at her Majdalyoun residence and toured Sidon to examine the security situation, saying it had suffered a “deep wound” that required treatment.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton issued a statement in which she offered condolences to the Army’s fallen and urged all sides to exercise restraint.
“The EU also supports the judiciary in combating impunity and holding to account all those who resort to violence,” she said.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri contacted President Michel Sleiman, Speaker Nabih Berri and Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi in separate telephone calls to discuss the latest developments in Sidon.
In the Beirut neighborhood of Badaro, Kahwagi visited a number of wounded soldiers at the central military hospital.
The visit came as the military announced that a soldier seriously wounded in the clashes had died.
The Army identified the soldier as 22-year-old Ibrahim Khodr, whose death raises the number of military fatalities to 18.
A brief clash also erupted between soldiers and a group of gunmen in the city of Tripoli over a poster of Assir.
A security source said the fight broke out in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh after gunmen tried to put up a poster of Assir and singer Fadl Shaker, who is also on the run following the clashes.
The source, who spoke to The Daily Star on condition of anonymity, said that during the clash gunmen opened fire at an Army post in Bab al-Tabbaneh. No casualties were reported as Army personnel quickly contained the fight and brought the situation under control. Hundreds of gunmen were on the streets of Tripoli Monday in solidarity with Assir.
The Army continued to sweep the suburb of Abra for explosive devices, as reconstruction efforts got underway and some families returned to homes evacuated during the fighting.