ABRA, Lebanon: The Lebanese Army is set to pursue firebrand Sheikh Ahmad Assir, who fled before commandos seized Monday a complex he controls, security sources said.
The soldiers took control of the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque and the surrounding compound in the Sidon suburb of Abra shortly after Assir fled the premises to an unknown destination, security sources said. Some media reports said he fled to the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh.
Addressing the Army, commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi said the military saved Lebanon from strife.
“You have accomplished a difficult and delicate mission and you have triumphed with your heads held high because you saved your country from strife,” he said in a statement.
At 5 p.m. Monday, the Lebanese Army solidified its control of the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque and continued to sweep the surrounding area.
Fighting erupted Sunday after armed supporters of Assir attacked a military checkpoint near the Abra complex, killing three soldiers and wounding several others.
At least 17 soldiers and over 40 gunmen were killed in ensuing clashes that raged for 25 hours between the military and Assir’s fighters. Sources also reported two civilian casualties.
Nearly 100 Army personnel, 60 Assir supporters and over 50 civilians were wounded in the fighting.
Kahwagi highlighted that the Army was a “unified entity” that did not assault “a particular sect or a place of worship or a religious figure.”
“The Army does not take sides or belong to a particular sect,” he said.
In line with arrest warrants issued by Lebanon’s military prosecutor against Assir and 123 of his followers, Army intelligence and other security agencies were exerting all efforts to track down Assir, security sources told The Daily Star.
The warrants included the names of Assir’s brother, and former singer Fadl Shaker, who gave up his singing career to follow the controversial sheikh, the source added. A video widely circulated on the Internet showed Shaker boasting that he had killed two soldiers.
In his statement, Kahwagi said the military would not “keep silent” in the face of any attacks against it and urged the Lebanese to stand united behind the Army in a bid to prevent attempts to turn Lebanese regions into armed zones of lawlessness.
“We’re still open to dialogue initiatives that aim to solve security problems wherever they may occur and absorb attempts by some to sow strife,” he added.
The state-run National News Agency reported that one of those killed in the fighting was Abu Abd Shmandar, Shaker’s brother.
One security source said Assir fled the complex at around 10 a.m., shortly before the Army stormed the premises, which the military gradually gained control over throughout the day.
Sixty-five gunmen, including several non-Lebanese nationals, either surrendered or were captured by Army units during the raid on the complex, the sources said.
The raid on the compound at noon came after an attempt by a group of Salafi preachers to mediate a truce reached a dead end, with the Army determined to continue its operations until Assir was captured and his followers crushed, the sources said.
The Army allowed ambulances to transport the corpses of Assir fighters to local hospitals.
According to sources, four Hezbollah fighters were killed and transported to Al-Rai Hospital in Sidon, while 15 were wounded and moved into one of Sidon’s hospitals.
Others occupied some apartments in Abra, Assir’s stronghold.
The sources said Hezbollah’s participation in the battle “was clear from day one,” as dozens of party cadres spread through the hills overlooking Abra, with some stationed near the Hariri family home in Majdalyoun.Masked men loyal to Assir and Hezbollah chased each other through the night, occasionally firing RPGs that struck civilian cars parked in the neighborhoods, the sources said.
Hundreds of residents in Abra were forced to spend the night holed up in a safe corner of their homes, in stairwells or inside shops.
The Army accused some of the gunmen of using places of worship for protection and civilians as “human shields” and urged them to give themselves up.
A meeting of senior officials headed by President Michel Sleiman Monday backed Army efforts to restore security in Sidon and prevent the spread of paramilitary groups.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said Tuesday would be a national day of mourning, during which all business would stop for one hour between noon and 1 p.m.
Security sources said one of the two civilian fatalities occurred in the Taamir area near Ain al-Hilweh, where militants attacked Army positions early Monday in an attempt to relieve the pressure on Abra. Two soldiers were also wounded in that area.
A truce was secured in Taamir at around 1:30 p.m, after fighting that lasted through the night, robbing residents of their sleep.
Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas, contacted Speaker Nabih Berri and stressed the need to keep the Palestinian refugee camps neutral amid the events in Sidon, Berri’s office told The Daily Star.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told President Michel Sleiman in a telephone call that the refugee groups would not get involved in local issues, saying the Palestinian Authority supports “the steps taken by the Lebanese state to prevent strife and maintain security and stability.”
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.
Tensions have spiked in parts of the country, particularly the northern city of Tripoli, as a result of the clashes in Sidon.
There was an armed presence in Tripoli Monday afternoon, with a number of gunmen opening fire in several neighborhoods and the Downtown district. Dozens of demonstrators also gathered at Al-Nour Square, raising black flags and shouting slogans in support of the radical sheikh.
In Beirut, Assir supporters burned tires in the neighborhood of Shatila.