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Assir threatens escalation as supporters dig in for long protest

Assir tours the sit-in site on a bicycle informing his supporters about the outcome of his talks with officials.

SIDON, Lebanon: Controversial preacher Sheikh Ahmad Assir signaled Monday that he would not bow to any government or public pressure to end a nearly one-week sit-in that has blocked Sidon’s northern entrance.

Assir’s supporters have dug in at the protest site, bringing in more tents and setting up prefabricated bathrooms, water tanks, taps and washrooms for prayers.

Assir, who began the sit-in last Wednesday to protest against Hezbollah’s arms, was seen moving around in the site on a bicycle, explaining to his supporters the outcome of government officials’ contacts with him to persuade him to end the sit-it.

However, contacts made by Interior Minister Marwan Charbel with Assir in his capacity as interior minister and also on designation by President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Najib Mikati to end the sit-in or to relocate the protest have led nowhere.

Assir has demanded concrete action with regard to ending the hegemony of non-state arms, a clear reference to Hezbollah’s weapons. He also threatened further escalation of his protest if the issue was not seriously discussed.

Assir told journalist that the most important contact with him was with Charbel, who he said had conveyed to him Sleiman’s wishes to end the sit-in in order to facilitate the process of National Dialogue, which is expected to tackle the arms issue later this month. Assir said Charbel mediated Sleiman’s assurance that the arms issue would be seriously discussed at the Dialogue.

“I don’t have the slightest doubt in the seriousness of the president. But my problem is not here. My problem is with the other side [Hezbollah] which is stalling the Dialogue conference and turning it into a joke,” Assir said.

He added he was not convinced by Sleiman’s remarks unless Hezbollah and the Amal Movement pledge to seriously discuss the arms issue.

Assir said Charbel told him that Mikati had also seconded Sleiman’s promise of discussing the arms issue at the National Dialogue.

“I have no problem with the prime minister. But my problem is with the one who owns the arms and does not seriously discuss it,” he said.

Assir said he told Charbel that he would continue the sit-in and that if the arms issue was not seriously addressed, “we would go to a bigger escalation.”

Assir said the sit-in would end only when its cause has been eliminated.

“The cause of our presence [in the sit-in] is that our dignity has been insulted. We want someone to guarantee for us a solution for the arms that have insulted our dignity,” Assir said, referring to Hezbollah’s weapons. He added that his movement was the “first step toward an intifada” against Hezbollah’s arsenal.

However, he acknowledged that it is impossible to withdraw Hezbollah’s arms. “But we want to feel a serious effort by the resistance party [to deal with the arms issue], something which it is not making. On the contrary, what we are seeing is a joke,” he said.

Following a series of condemnations by Sidon’s political and religious leaders of the sit-in and their calls for the reopening of Sidon’s southbound highway, Assir remained defiant, continuing the sit-in which he said was aimed at pressuring Hezbollah to surrender its arms to the Lebanese Army.

Meanwhile, Lebanese singer Fadl Shaker, a staunch supporter of Assir, denied accusations that he was supplying the sheikh with money from Qatar.

Speaking by phone to reporters in Sidon from Qatar, Shaker said: “I am not providing Sheikh Ahmad Assir with money from the Qataris as claimed by some. I am one of Sheikh Assir’s supporters and I am donating from my own money to the fund of the mosque supervised by Sheikh Assir and to a fund [in the mosque] to help Syrian refugees.” He said he left with his family to an Arab country after receiving threats to his life from inside Lebanon and Syria.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 03, 2012, on page 3.

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