SIDON, Lebanon: Sidon was spared violence Friday as Salafist Sheikh Ahmad Assir staged a protest that ended without incident amid strict security measures enforced by the Army and Internal Security Forces.
Assir and around 400 of his supporters protested around the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque in Abra, east of Sidon, demanding the departure of what he claimed were Hezbollah-linked men in apartments located near the mosque. Assir said he would hold a sit-in in the same place Saturday, adding that the protests would intensify unless his demands are met.
The Army and ISF deployed heavily in the area and prevented protesters from approaching the apartments.
Addressing worshippers during Friday’s sermon prior to the sit-in, Assir said it would take place in the vicinity of the mosque as the Army requested, urging them not to clash with the soldiers “who are our children.”
The Army and ISF took special measures on the roads leading to Abra and around the mosque, limiting Assir’s movements to a 50-square-meter area. Security patrolled the streets of Sidon and media outlets were banned from covering the sermon and the protest.
Assir said that the media blackout on his activities and the “military siege” laid on the mosque was evidence of “Iran’s veiled occupation of Lebanon.”
“Who made the decision to lay this siege? Isn’t it [Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed] Hasan Nasrallah? The Higher Defense Council convened because I carried a rifle. Who asked it to do so?” Assir said.
Assir said he would not remain silent about the “Iranian occupation of Lebanon,” and accused Hezbollah of distracting the Army from its main duty of protecting Lebanon against Israeli aggression.
“The Army is a part of us. Nasrallah cannot stand between us,” Assir said, adding that the “battle is one between us and the party of arms [Hezbollah].”
Addressing Hezbollah during the protest, Assir said: “The free people everywhere, particularly those who dealt a blow to your project in Syria, will shut down these apartments.”
Earlier, the South Lebanon Security Council decided after a meeting that Assir’s sit-in would take place in a designated area near the mosque, and stressed that his supporters should be banned from carrying arms.
“Instructions were given to the Army and Internal Security Forces to deal strictly with any attempt to violate these measures in line with decisions made by the Higher Defense Council [which met Wednesday] and the interior minister’s instructions,” said a statement from the council. The statement added that measures would be taken to prevent violations and that Assir was informed by his aide about the need to respect these measures.
The meeting was chaired by South Lebanon Governor Nicholas Bou Daher along with heads of other security bodies in the south.
For his part, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said that security bodies were fulfilling their duties to prevent an armed presence in Sidon.
“This issue [Assir’s movement] has stoked sectarian sentiment in Sidon,” he said.
Charbel’s remarks came after he chaired a meeting of the Central Security Council at the Interior Ministry, attended by General Prosecutor Hatem Madi, ISF Director General Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi and a host of other senior security officials.
Charbel said the council convened on the request of the Higher Defense Council in order to address the wave of kidnappings the country has witnessed in the last two years.
He said authorities have arrested 54 people so far and would soon carry out plans to detain 87 others who are wanted.
Charbel, who described the security situation in Lebanon as “very difficult,” called on Parliament to convene to allow the Army and ISF to address security incidents with a heavy hand.
Sidon-based politician Osama Saad, the head of the Popular Nasserite Organization, called on the city’s residents to remain calm and wait to see how the state would deal with “abnormal situation” Sidon is witnessing, in reference to Assir.
Saad accused the Future Movement of being the “spiritual father” behind certain provocative incidents, such as those of Assir’s, adding that his party would consider how to deal with Assir if the state fails to do so.
In Abdeh, Akkar, residents held a sit-in at the town’s roundabout in solidarity with Assir.
Sources from Sidon voiced surprise over what they called the exaggeration of Assir’s activities by the March 8 coalition, which it said is neglecting the motivations behind his actions: The spread of illegal arms in Sidon.
The sources said the South Lebanon Security Council failed to tackle the issue of armed presence of other groups in the city during its meeting, particularly Hezbollah and its allies, who sources said went on alert Friday in several neighborhoods.