ABRA, Lebanon: The Lebanese Army pushed for a decisive conclusion to the threat posed by the radical Salafist preacher Ahmad al-Assir, after at least 10 soldiers and two gunmen loyal to the anti-Hezbollah sheikh were killed Sunday in clashes in a suburb of the southern city of Sidon, security sources said.
Security sources said Assir refused to depart from his security perimeter in Abra without his supporters and the Army was wary of civilian casualties as the suburb is a residential area. However, the sources said the Army would not succumb until two key demands are met.
“The Army is very clear it wants all those who attacked the military post [earlier Sunday] arrested and demands that Assir’s Bilal bin Rabah Mosque in Abra be transferred to the Directorate of Islamic Endowments,” one source said. “If these two demands are not met the Army will not put an end to its operation against Assir and his forces.”
Thirty-eight soldiers were wounded in the fighting that erupted after 2 p.m. and continued throughout the night, while two Assir supporters were killed in the clashes and at least 13 were reported wounded in the fiercest fighting yet between the military and the Salafist preacher.
The Army also came under fire from the Taamir area of Ain al-Hilweh.
Residents of Abra and Taamir appealed to the Army to evacuate them from the areas of conflict.
A group of preachers headed by Salafist Sheikh Salem al-Rafei headed to Sidon to mediate a deal that would put an end to the clashes. The preachers visited the Army barracks in the city to discuss sending an envoy to Assir to broker an exit deal for him and his fighters.
The sources said the fighting started when a military post, located on the road to Abra – not far from the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque where Assir preaches – was attacked after the relative of a supporter of the preacher was arrested.
The initial attack claimed the lives of three soldiers. The Army retaliated against Assir’s supporters, who had taken refuge within the sheikh’s security perimeter around the mosque and the nearby residential buildings, as well as behind barricades that had been set up days before the attack.
The sources said Assir’s fighters relied heavily on RPGs in the clashes that ensued. One armored personnel carrier was set ablaze after receiving a direct RPG hit, they said. A soldier was seen emerging in flames from the Army car. Medical personnel were able to eventually evacuate the Army soldiers under a hail of bullets.
Smoke billowed over the neighborhood and at least one building caught fire. The National News Agency reported that residents of Abra fled the violence into Sidon and eastern villages in the vicinity.
Several Hezbollah fighters – approximately 100 – were seen on rooftops overlooking Abra and in the vicinity of the Hariri family’s residence in Majdalyoun.
Sidon’s coastal highway, which links Beirut to the rest of the south, was also closed, stranding thousands of motorists, but was later reopened by the Army.
By late afternoon, rockets were falling in the vicinity of the Bilal bin 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.
The sources said that around 5:30 p.m. the Army managed to secure the vicinity around the mosque.
The Army called the attack a “betrayal” perpetrated “not with the bullets of the enemy but the bullets of a Lebanese group from the heart of the city of Sidon, which is dear to the Army.”
In a powerful condemnation of the “premeditated, cold-blooded” attack, the Army statement likened the murder of the soldiers to the outbreak of violence in Sidon in 1975, in the early days of the Lebanese Civil War.
The military said Sidon’s political leadership faced the choice of either standing by the Army or with “promoters of strife and soldier killers.” “The leadership of the Army will not stay silent ... it will continue its mission to break the strife in Sidon and other regions, and will strike with an iron fist all who dare to shed the blood of the Army,” the statement said.
In a video posted on YouTube Sunday, the fiery preacher Assir 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 said the Army belonged to the “shabbiha [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.
In a statement later in the day, Assir blamed the Lebanese Army for instigating the violence. He said the Army, which had set up a barricade in a “provocative manner” in his mosque’s vicinity, beat up and insulted two of his supporters. When other supporters sought clarification, the Army opened fire on them, he said.
The statement said the attack coincided with fire from what it alleged were Hezbollah-controlled apartments around the mosque that were stocked with weapons, “a step that proves coordination” between the Army and Hezbollah.
The gunfire was followed by attacks with RPGs against the mosque and the surrounding residential buildings, which caused numerous injuries among women, children and civilians, the Assir statement said, adding that rockets were being fired from the Mar Elias district in Sidon, which is controlled by Hezbollah.
Speaking by telephone with The Daily Star, Tarek al-Sousi, a resident living at the heart of the battle, called on the president, prime minister and Army to “put an end to this tragedy because our building is burning and there are armed men firing at the Army.”
Hajja Heyam, who was fleeing the violence, said she had seen a number of Assir supporters bleeding next to burning cars. “I survived by a miracle,” she said.
Area residents were unable to use mobile phones as lines became overloaded.
The fighting hit the Zahrani-Aramoun power plant, disrupting the electricity network and plunging the entire country into darkness.
President Michel Sleiman called for a meeting including ministers and security officials to address the violence.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri issued a statement warning “against any attempt to lure Sidon into a confrontation with the Lebanese Army.”
Hariri blamed Hezbollah for provoking Sidon’s citizens and for maintaining security outposts in the city, but said that such actions “should not be a pretext to break the law or to use weapons against the posts of the Lebanese Army or any other legitimate security forces.”
Rival road closures in support of the Army and Assir took place in Baalbek, Sidon and Tripoli, with the Army working to reopen the roads.