ABRA/BEIRUT, Lebanon: Ten Lebanese soldiers were killed in clashes Sunday with supporters of an anti-Hezbollah preacher in Abra, east of Sidon, said the Army, which vowed to push on with a crackdown against those targeting the military in response to the “cold-blooded” attack.
Security sources said 38 soldiers were also wounded in the fighting that erupted after 2 p.m. and continued with growing ferocity throughout the evening hours of the day. They added at least two gunmen loyal to Sheikh Ahmad Assir were killed in the clashes.
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.
In a statement earlier in the day, the Army said three of its members, including two officers, were killed in an attack on a checkpoint in the Abra-Sidon area.
“Without any reason, an armed group belonging to Sheikh Ahmad Assir attacked an Army checkpoint in Abra-Sidon, killing two officers and a private; and wounding several others in addition to destroying several military vehicles,” the statement said.
The sources said the military post, located on the road to Abra - not far from the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque where Assir preaches – was struck by rocket-propelled grenades.
In a statement in the evening, the Army raised the number of fatalities among its ranks to six.
The security sources said Assir’s fighters were relying heavily on RPGs in the clashes. One armored personnel carrier was set ablaze after receiving a direct RPG hit, they said.
Smoke billowed over the neighborhood and at least one building caught fire.
Sidon’s coastal highway, which links Beirut to the rest of the south, was also closed, stranding thousands of motorists.
By late afternoon, rockets were falling in the vicinity of Rabah mosque, the scene of a deadly clash last week between Assir’s supporters and members of the Resistance Brigades, a pro- Hezbollah group. The Army had deployed heavily to end that round of fighting, setting up outposts around Abra.
At around 5.30 p.m. the Army managed to secure the vicinity around the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque, the sources said, adding that military had also taken out several posts in the area manned by Assir loyalists.
The fast-pacing events in Sidon, the entry point to the south, sparked a series of protests in several parts of the country, some supporting Assir, others the Army.
In a strongly worded statement, the Army said it would respond with an iron fist to any further aggression against the military.
“The Army will not remain silent to what it has suffered militarily and politically and will continue its mission to crack down on strife in Sidon and other parts [of the country] and strike with a iron fist whoever thinks of shedding the blood of the Army and respond to all those who protect them politically and at the media level,” it said.
The Army, which said it had been “cold-bloodedly” targeted in Abra, also warned officials in Sidon to express unambiguously their position over the dangerous events.
“The leadership of the Army refuses duplicitous language and points out that the religious, spiritual leaders and lawmakers of Sidon are invited today to express frankly their stance: either to stand next the Lebanese Army to protect civilians ... and prevent [an explosion] or to stand beside the provokers of strife and killers of soldiers,” it said in a statement.
In a video posted on Youtube Sunday, Assir, who has provoked sectarian sentiments in the past, urged members of the military to desert.
“To all our partisans, we are being attacked by the Lebanese Army, which is Iranian and Shiite,” Assir said in the video. He claimed the Army belonged to the “shabiha [thugs]” of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah and his ally, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who heads the Amal Movement.
“I call on all partisans to block roads and all honorable Sunni and non-Sunni [soldiers] to quit the Army,” added Assir, who appeared in black pants and a black T-shirt with an assault rifle at his side.
Assir’s call for desertion prompted a swift response from President Michel Sleiman.
According to a statement from his office, Sleiman said calls for soldiers to desert and to ‘wage a jihad’ against the military only served “Lebanon’s enemies” and would go on deaf ears of the Lebanese, Palestinians and soldiers as the “Army has the trust and support of the people ... as well as the complete political cover in order for it to crack down on those endangering the security of citizens and soldiers.”
Sleiman, who followed up the situation in Sidon with Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi and caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, called for a meeting of ministers and security officials to be held at Baabda Palace on Monday.