ABRA, Lebanon: Lebanese commandos seized Monday a complex controlled by gunmen loyal to Sheikh Ahmad Assir in the southern city of Sidon, shortly after the firebrand preacher fled the premises to an unknown destination, security sources said.
The sources said at least 17 soldiers and over 25 gunmen have been killed in the clashes between the military and Assir’s fighters since the deadly attack Sunday on an Army post near the Abra complex that houses the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque, where Assir frequently delivered his provocative sermons.
One security source said Assir fled the complex at around 10 a.m., shortly after the Army stormed the premises which the military gradually gained control over throughout the day. Sources said soldiers were still trading gunfire with snipers located on the rooftops of nearby buildings.
Assir's whereabouts are unknown.
Sixty-five gunmen, including several non-Lebanese nationals, either surrendered or were captured by Army units during the raid on the complex, the sources said.
According to the sources, Army eavesdropping intercepted communications in which Assir, who had been in the vicinity of the complex in the morning, urged his gunmen not to surrender to the military and “fight to the death.”
Lebanon’s military prosecutor issued arrest warrants against Assir and 123 of his followers, a judicial source told The Daily Star. The warrants included the names of Assir's brother, and singer Fadl Shaker, who gave up his singing career to follow the radical sheikh, the source added.
The raid on the compound at noon came after an attempt by a group of Salafi preachers to mediate a truce reached a dead end, with the Army determined to continue its operations until Assir was captured and his followers crushed, the sources said.
Fighting erupted Sunday after armed supporters of Assir attacked a military checkpoint near the Abra complex, killing three soldiers and wounding several others.
Pitched battles ensued as the Army, which vowed to respond with an iron fist to the "cold-blooded" attack, stormed Assir-held Abra.
At least 14 more soldiers were killed and more than 65 wounded. At least two civilians also died in the clashes, which brought Sidon to a standstill.
The Army accused Monday some of the gunmen of using places of worship for protection and civilians as “human shields” and urged them to give themselves up.
“The Army expresses its complete respect for the role of [places of] worship and the lives of residents and urges the gunmen who attacked the Army posts and residents ... to throw down their weapons and hand themselves in order to spare further bloodshed,” it said in a statement.
Hundreds of civilians were trapped in the two days of fighting with some making appeals on local television stations for the Army to secure a safe passage for them. Ambulances and civil defense units were also unable to gain access to the tiny neighborhood.
A meeting of senior officials headed by President Michel Sleiman Monday backed Army efforts to restore security in Sidon and prevent the spread of paramilitary groups.
It also called for measures to evacuate civilians from the conflict zones.
Security sources said one of the two civilian fatalities occurred in the Taamir area of the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh, where militants fought Army positions early Monday in an attempt to relieve the pressure on Abra. Two soldiers were also wounded in that area.
A truce was secured in Taamir at around 1:30 p.m.
Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas, contacted Speaker Nabih Berri and stressed the need to keep the Palestinian refugee camps neutral from the events in Sidon, Berri’s office told The Daily Star.
Heavy traffic strangled the city’s coastal highway from the south in the morning hours as motorists made their way to the Lebanese capital following weekend retreats.
“I felt trapped in my car waiting to get past the security checkpoint on the seaside road,” said one motorist who wished to remain anonymous.
“The sound of gunfire is just nonstop and the smoke over the city can be seen from miles away,” the motorist added, speaking from Sidon.
The fighting, which the Army said was reminiscent of events preceding Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War, highlighted the increasing impact of the conflict in Syria on its small neighbor.
Assir is a staunch supporter of Syrian rebels seeking the ouster of President Bashar Assad and an outspoken critic of Hezbollah.
He had stepped up his rhetoric against Hezbollah, in a ferocious sectarian tone, since the powerful group announced in April that it was fighting alongside Assad's forces.
Tensions have spiked in parts of the country, particularly the northern city of Tripoli, as a result of the clashes in Sidon.
There was an armed presence in the port city Monday afternoon, with a number of gunmen opening fire in several neighborhoods and the Downtown district. Dozens of demonstrators also gathered at Nour Square, raising black flags and shouting slogans in support of the radical sheikh.
There were reports that a military post was set on fire on Syria Street, which divides the rival neighborhoods of Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh in the port city. However, the fire had actually erupted at fabric store near the post, security sources said.
In Beirut, Assir supporters burned tires in the neighborhood of Shatila.
The Army said it would not cease military operations until security was completely restored in Sidon and its environs and urged residents who were trapped as a result of the fighting and requiring assistance to contact the military at 1701 or 01-422-245. – With additional reporting by Antoine Amrieh