SIDON, Lebanon: The Lebanese Army deployed Tuesday in the suburb of Abra, south Lebanon, after clashes between supporters of Sheikh Ahmad Assir and the Resistance Brigades, a pro-Hezbollah group, claimed the life of one resident, security sources told The Daily Star.
Backed by 20 armored personnel carriers, some 400 soldiers made their way into Abra, an eastern suburb of the southern coastal city of the Sidon, the sources said.
Their evening deployment came after a tentative cease-fire was reached following negotiations between Assir, a fierce opponent of Hezbollah, and Sidon Mufti Salim Sousan.
The clashes, which also wounded at least three people, erupted in the afternoon hours in Qiyaa and soon spread to the vicinity of the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque in Abra, where Assir holds sermons, the sources said.
A volley of rocket-propelled grenades was also fired at Abra but it was not clear who fired the grenades, the sources added.
Assir’s supporters claimed that rocket-propelled grenades and sometimes mortar bombs were fired at the mosque from Mar Elias and Haret Saida, both strongholds of Hezbollah and Amal.
The Army, which had been stationed around the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque, withdrew from the area and blocked the road leading to the neighborhood soon after the violence erupted, the sources said.
Tension in the suburb soured as a result of the fighting.
Crying children were evacuated from one local kindergarten. Other kindergartens considered similar measures.
The fighting, which went on for over three hours, also brought much of the city to a standstill.
In a statement in the afternoon, the Army said the catalyst of the fighting had been a morning road incident and the closure of two highways.
“At 3 p.m. and upon a road incident in Abra, gunmen deployed in Abra and began firing [with the aim] of intimidation which led to wounded among citizens. This coincided with other individuals blocking the coastal highway as well as the eastern highway,” the Army said.
“Army units deployed in the area intervened [as a result] and were reinforced and are working on removing the armed presence, reopening roads and restoring calm,” it added.
Security sources said a man, who was identified as Mahmoud Al-Sous, vandalized a van owned by Assir’s brother, Amjad, breaking its windows. Najib Al-Yaman, a supporter of Assir, had been in the vehicle at the time of the incident.
The incident in Qiyaa developed into armed clash between Assir’s supporters and members from the Resistance Brigades.
Residents who spoke to The Daily Star said that during the fighting Assir had threatened to break into apartments which he claims are owned by armed members of Hezbollah in the area.
Speaking to LBCI, Assir said residents of the apartments had till Monday to vacate the premises.
The radical preacher has previously warned he would personally deal with Hezbollah members he alleges have taken up residence in at least two apartments surrounding the Abra mosque. He claims the occupants of the apartments are monitoring his movements.
Local and state officials were keen for the situation to be brought under control promptly.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati had followed up on the security situation in Sidon in contacts with caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel and heads of security apparatuses, his office said.
Mikati renewed his call that “everyone exercise wisdom and calm at this tense period that we are going through and to stay away from reactions that negatively affect everyone.”
Sidon MP Bahia Hariri contacted President Michel Sleiman and urged him to call for the deployment of the Army and security forces in Sidon in order “to restore stability and security for the city and its residents,” the National News Agency reported.
The NNA report said the president informed Hariri that the Army would take all the needed measures to bring the situation in Abra and Sidon under control.
Hariri also contacted Charbel and Army chief Maj. Gen. Jean Kahwagi over the situation in the southern city, the state-run agency said.
The Army’s deployment in the afternoon did meet some resistance by Assir’s fighters on the ground.
Two of the APCs were fired upon as they entered the neighborhood, which prompted the military to respond to the sources of fire.
The gunmen then tried blocking the road with a car, which the military rapidly rammed through.
The remaining APCs entered the area minutes later and some 400 soldiers deployed after Sousan urged the gunmen to withdraw to allow the military to fulfill its task of restoring order.
The gunmen had earlier ignored the mufti’s request, claiming they had not received orders from Assir to do so, but then later complied after a further plea by the Sidon mufti.
In its statement, the Army vowed it would not tolerate the security situation deteriorating in the area.
“The Army command warns all gunmen to immediately withdraw from the streets and it will not allow the spread of chaos and will open fire on any armed [person] and respond to sources of fire in kind,” it said.