SIDON, Lebanon: In the latest outburst of violence linked to the Syrian conflict, Sidon was jolted Tuesday by clashes between supporters of Salafist Sheikh Ahmad Assir and a pro-Hezbollah group that left at least one man dead.
The Lebanese Army deployed east of Sidon to restore calm, forcing rival gunmen to pull out of the streets.
Some 400 soldiers, backed by 20 armored personnel carriers, fanned out in Abra, an eastern suburb of the southern city of Sidon, which was the scene of heavy fighting between Assir’s supporters and the Resistance Brigades, a pro-Hezbollah group, security sources said.
For more than three hours, the two sides traded mortar and rocket-propelled-grenade fire that killed one man and wounded three, the sources said. The clashes created panic among the residents and brought life in Sidon to a standstill as many shops closed.
Frightened and crying children were evacuated from one local kindergarten and other kindergartens took similar measures. Exams planned at private schools for this week have been postponed.
The Army deployment followed a tentative cease-fire arranged in negotiations between Assir, a fierce opponent of Hezbollah, and Sidon’s Mufti Salim Sousan.
The Army said in a statement issued Tuesday night that the situation was back to normal in Sidon after troops completed their deployment in the city’s neighborhoods that were the scene of fighting.
“The Army has eliminated all armed presence, opened all roads and fully brought the situation back to normal,” the statement said.
It added that the exchange of fire by the gunmen had left one citizen dead and another wounded.
The afternoon clashes erupted in Qiyaa and soon spread to the vicinity of the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque in Abra, where Assir holds sermons.
A volley of RPG fire was also lobbed at Abra, but it was not clear who fired the arms, the sources added.
Assir’s supporters claimed that RPGs and sometimes mortar bombs were fired at the mosque from Mar Elias and Haret Saida, both strongholds of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement.
In an earlier statement, the Army said the fighting was triggered by a road incident and the closure of two highways.
“At 3 p.m. and after a road incident in Abra, gunmen deployed in Abra and began firing [with the aim] of intimidation, which left citizens wounded. This coincided with other individuals blocking the coastal highway as well as the eastern highway,” the statement 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, 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 an 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.
Local politicians and government officials worked to bring the situation under control. Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati contacted caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel and heads of security apparatuses to follow up the situation.
Mikati called on everyone to exercise “wisdom and calm at this tense period through which we are going, 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 “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 warned of attempts to incite strife in Sidon and called on the Army and security forces to “impose security and stability” in the city.
The Army’s deployment in the afternoon did meet some resistance by Assir’s fighters on the ground. Two of the Armored Personnel Carriers 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.
In its statement, the Army vowed it would not allow the security situation to get out of hand. “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,” it said.
Meanwhile, a cautious calm prevailed in the northern Bekaa region and the city of Hermel Tuesday after the region’s security officials and politicians succeeded in containing any negative reactions to Sunday’s killing of three Lebanese Shiite men and a Turk in Wadi Rafeq, an isolated area in the Bekaa Valley.
Hezbollah handed over a member of Al-Hujairi family who was held captive by the Jaafar clan to Baalbek’s Mufti Sheikh Bakr al-Rifai, Al-Manar TV reported.